When executives at Nokia Bell Labs brought engineers and scientists together from separate teams, their experiments led to the invention that we know as the vacuum tube.
Since then, the product has transformed hundreds of industries and solidified Nokia’s place in the telecommunications technology space.
The global revenue of their network infrastructure has been increasing by 22% year after year, and for the quarter ending March 31, 2021, it was €1.7B.
That’s the power of cross-functional collaboration. Many of the problems organizations face today need not one, but multiple teams or departments to work with one another. And in a survey of more than 2000 professionals, LinkedIn has identified cross-functional collaboration as a key leadership skill.
That’s why in this post, we’ll take a look at the meaning of cross-functional collaboration, its advantages, and best practices to facilitate cross-functional collaboration at work.
Cross-functional collaboration refers to the concept of employees from different operational areas of a company working together to complete a project or solve a problem. For example:
- Ecommerce website designers, developers, and copywriters may join forces to deliver a cohesive user experience.
- Sales, customer support, and marketing teams may engage in cross-team collaboration to create a uniform customer journey.
- Manufacturing floor staff and procurement managers may collaborate to reduce excess inventory and ensure stock availability.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Cross-functional collaboration has endless applications and possibilities depending on the business requirements.
Importance of cross-functional collaboration
So why would you want different departments to collaborate? The future belongs to cross-team collaboration. According to Deloitte, “We’re seeing a shift from hierarchies to cross-functional teams. Adopting team structures can improve organizational performance, while not doing so puts you at the risk of falling behind.”
We’ve covered some use cases above but the benefits of cross-functional collaboration go beyond that. These include:
When you involve people from different parts of the business, you get different points of view. The combination of these unique perspectives can lead to creative ideas for solving problems and lifting production.
Cross-functional collaboration can make your business operations more efficient. The more different departments collaborate, the more their workflows will evolve and improve.
For example, if a manufacturing company suddenly loses its regular supplier, sales representatives, the ordering department, and the warehouse manager can unite to find a new vendor.
With this cross-team collaboration, they have a high chance of quickly finding a new supplier that satisfies the criteria established by all three of them.
When you involve people from different spheres in a change initiative from the beginning, you also get their empathy, buy-in, and trust. And they spread this acceptance to other people in their respective teams.
The result? Everyone’s on the same page, and there are fewer delays in execution. For example, some companies have orientation programs where a new employee is required to spend some time in each department.
This leads to a better understanding of the challenges and decision-making processes in different parts of the business. So whatever team the employee ends up with, he’d still be able to welcome changes introduced by other teams.
This one’s a pretty obvious benefit of cross-team collaboration. When you collaborate with other departments, you also get to know the tools, processes, and best practices they are using.
The inner workings of a different department help you learn lessons that you can implement in your own team. For example, they might be using a better tool for data visualization which is also cheaper than yours.
Plus, you get a better sense of how your work and the other team’s work fits into the bigger picture.
As you can see, solving problems that affect multiple teams or departments goes a long way in giving you an edge against the competition.
You may think that bringing people together from different teams would be easy, since they’re all part of the same company. But that’s often not the case, especially in medium and large-sized businesses.
Different departments may have conflicting agendas, values, goals, and priorities. And these differences prevent them from progressing on cross-functional projects.
So let’s see the core steps you can take to improve cross-functional collaboration in your business.
30% of employees worldwide cite inadequate vision as the reason for the failure of projects in their companies.
Image Source: PMI
If that’s the case for regular projects, you can imagine how high it would be for cross-functional projects.
When you don’t share a concrete reason for the existence of a cross-functional project, why would anyone prioritize it over the tasks within their own team?
Be transparent with the teams involved about why you started the project. Tell them why they were chosen for it. And clarify what’s the end goal.
For example, if you are launching an onboarding program with a mentor from each department, the vision could be to quickly transform new hires into long-term assets.
The more open your communication, the more invested different departments will be in the project’s success.
How you build your cross-functional team plays a big role in your project’s success.
For example, having a finance expert in the team will be crucial for a cross-functional project that involves cutting energy costs and becoming a more eco-friendly company. Plus, you’ll also need PR experts that can spread the story in news outlets and give the whole thing a positive spin.
When putting together a cross-functional team, also consider the diversity and influence exerted by every member within the organization. People who are well-liked and respected even outside their immediate departments make perfect candidates for cross-functional initiatives.
Do any of these ring a bell?
“I thought he/she was going to do it.”
“I keep butting heads with someone in the other team doing my job.”
“I am reporting to two managers from different teams with different ideas on what my job is.”
If you don’t clear up the expectations from each cross-functional team member, your team will remain confused about what exactly they should do, and who will carry out each task.
Remember, employees with clarity on their roles report a high level of satisfaction (75%), effectiveness (86%), and productivity (83%).
Image Source: Effectory
So when engaging in cross-team collaboration, make sure to clearly organize both individual and collective tasks for your workers. Every employee should know what tasks they are supposed to do on their own, and what is to be done in collaboration with other team members.
A study of American workers across many industries found that 20% end up duplicating the work of others. The reason? Not being able to reach the concerned coworker.
Image Source: Panopto
So while it’s good to clarify roles and responsibilities for each team member, they must also know what everyone else is doing and responsible for. This will help you in two ways:
- There will be no repeat or duplicate work. If someone is already handling a task, another person will not take it up.
- When a team member runs into a problem or needs some information, they’ll know who to reach out to.
The basic information you should openly display for each team member includes:
- Full name
- Department name and job title
- Role within the cross-functional project
- Contact information
A great way to streamline this process is to use an employee directory. Blink, for example, is an internal communication app that offers this feature.
It lets you create a directory where information about each worker can be displayed. Plus, employees can search or reach anyone in the directory via instant messaging.
The ability to communicate the goals, status, and outcome of your team’s work is crucial for cross-functional collaboration. When cross-functional teams don’t discuss project updates and requirements with one another, they cannot realize their full potential.
But cross-functional communication can be tricky. People are occupied with projects within their immediate teams, and no one may be willing to go the extra mile to communicate with other departments.
A great way to make communication easy for everyone is by implementing simple communication channels. Even better if you can provide a designated space for employees to share updates, exchange messages, and share documents.
That way, you make it easy for different departments to share information without switching between multiple apps.
Another thing you should do is to create a concrete communication strategy for your cross-functional project. The communication strategy will clarify how and when to send updates, and set communication expectations for the teams involved.
Cross-functional projects are usually big, and big projects are scary. There are many moving parts that can overwhelm the teams involved. They may not know where to begin, how to carry out a task, or whom to ask.
In such a situation, documenting every aspect of the project can be a huge help. It clarifies processes and boosts productivity in both the short and long term.
Documenting involves writing down details about the project goals, baseline measurements, ongoing tasks, expected results, and more. Then making all this information available to the departments that have a stake in the cross-functional project.
You can begin by creating a project timeline to set and communicate the main tasks and a schedule based on when they should be completed.
Take construction projects, for example. These are typically complex cross-functional ventures because they require the design, procurement, and construction teams to collaborate deeply with one another.
And they have many tasks and subtasks to be managed on a strict timeline, as delays can lead to increased costs. Here’s what a project timeline might look like for such a project.
Image Source: GanttPRO
This level of detail in your documentation goes a long way in showing both the big-picture view and small tasks associated with the project, making the project vision easy to digest for all the team members.
Cross-functional collaboration can be daunting, but its potential for your business can’t be ignored. It’s an opportunity to leverage the leadership, communication, and problem-solving skills from all corners of your company and use them to drive powerful results.
So use these strategies to set a solid foundation for cross-functional success. As your teams start collaborating, encourage them to keep adjusting and learning from the experience. Because these lessons will help you improve your organization’s ability to facilitate cross-functional collaboration even further.