Cross-functional collaboration is when people from different areas join forces to solve a problem.
Business projects are often complex and involve different areas. Just look at the creation of a website: there’s the need for copywriting, designing, and coding. And while designers can easily communicate with other designers, what happens when they need to tell the developers what to do?
That’s when cross-functional collaboration is needed!
Another typical example of cross-functional collaboration is marketing and sales teams collaborating on leads. And from the medical realm, front-desk assistants, medical assistants, to doctors create a seamless patient experience.
The most obvious challenge is that people from different teams have different priorities.
In the website example, the dev team cares about the site working seamlessly. The design team wants it to look good and be easy to navigate. The copywriter is happy as long as there’s a strong slogan and words that convert.
That said, the differing viewpoints are also where the power in cross-functional collaboration lies. Homogenous teams tend to have a one-dimensional perspective. Plus, they can tend to make decisions that bring the most harmony to the team instead of what will be most beneficial for the project.
Communication is key. How many times have we heard that? And even more so in cross-functional collaboration. We might get what someone in a similar role as ours intends without explanations – the same doesn’t hold true for a person in a different position where we lack the expertise.
Using clear communication without role-specific jargon – and not taking things for granted – are thus essential cross-functional collaboration work skills. Also, don’t skip setting the standards for effortless communication. It may seem obvious but especially if you’re working on a project, everyone comes from different backgrounds and has different communication habits. More on that further down!
Absence of Compelling Goals
A goal should ideally be measurable. Clearly define what KPIs you’ll be looking at. Your team members will feel more motivated when they know what they’ll work toward!
If it’s too difficult, team members will lose motivation. The same goes if the goals seem too easy. Ideally, there’s some reward attached to reaching the goals – maybe a financial bonus. It can also be the launch of a new feature that will drive more sales and strengthen your position on the market. Make it clear and compelling before the project starts, and you’ll see motivation skyrocket!
Another reason cross-functional collaboration might have failed you in the past is the lack of clarity around who’s responsible for what.
When starting a cross-collaborative project, the work needs to be clearly compartmentalized to avoid confusion. A key to this is a friendly and collaborative environment with room for mistakes. If your employees are too scared to ask for advice, it increases the risk of errors that could have been avoided.
The same goes within the team – employees need to know what other team members are responsible for. This will take a lot off your plate!
In an ideal world, everything would run smoothly, and everyone would like each other from day one. If you work within a new cross-functional collaboration setting, it’s normal that building trust takes time. People want to see your integrity and leadership when the going gets tough before they can fully trust you.
Building trust early is essential, so everyone feels comfortable and safe sharing challenges and problems that arise. Set a positive tone from the first meeting and show your team that you’re there for them and have laid the foundation for a smooth cross-functional collaboration!
When you expect your people to succeed, they tend to deliver! Leave micromanagement in kindergarten and treat your team members as the responsible adults they are.
While communication is critical, constant updates take valuable time that your employees could use for proceeding with the project. Instead, create a positive, open environment where everyone feels comfortable reporting roadblocks and challenges when needed. It saves everyone time and frustration!
Cross-functional collaboration management is about expecting the unexpected and navigating it with grace. For example, judging team members who aren’t performing as desired can be easy. But what is the root cause?
Another example is to be prepared to jump in and duct tape things together when required. This could look like adding another developer when the current coding team is overloaded with work. Or find whiteboard markers during an important stakeholder meeting when the power goes out.
Be ready to course-correct – and keep the team informed about any updates.
Cross-collaborative leadership is about managing resources. And the most important of them all is human resources.
This translates into understanding how you can bring out the best of each team member, despite their differences. What makes one person tick can put another one off. Some of your team members may be hungry to get promoted and move into another function. In contrast, others just want to finish in time and spend time with their family.
And sometimes, the quietest project members have the best ideas! Listen to everyone’s input, knowing that some may prefer talking to you directly instead of sharing during meetings.
The foundation is set, and the project has taken off. So far, so good! But for the project manager, it’s not just to sit back and relax. We’ll share a few hacks to enjoy a smooth-sailing ride.
1. Align Goals
Even if you agreed upon the goals at the start of the cross-functional collaboration, everyone interpreted them through their individual lens. Friction can occur when people act on their personal interpretations of where you’re headed.
As the team leader, this is where you need to step in and straighten out any question marks. Align the individual visions and remind everyone that you’re acting on what’s best for the project.
2. Have Regular Check-Ins But Not Too Regular
We mentioned the importance of trusting your team. Team leadership is a fine line – you don’t want to monitor your team members or have them send daily reports on what they have been doing. On the other hand, you don’t want them to feel left out and clueless.
Depending on the complexity and scope of the project or product, it can be a good idea to have a weekly check-in. If you’re working on a software project, you probably work with daily standups where people can vent. However, these are just quick updates to keep each other à jour – so regular cross-functional meetings are still needed.
3. Consider Team-Building Activities
Employees who enjoy the work and each other’s company do a better job. If the people in the cross-functional collaboration don’t already know each other, it can be a great idea to start with a team-building activity.
Team-building activities act as social lubricants. At the same time, they help each person learn about the others’ learning and communication styles, which is valuable information for smooth cross-functional collaboration.
4. Build a Foundation of Trust
Trust is a two-way process. We talked about how you, as a leader, should build trust so that your team members know they can count on you. Equally important is to give trust to all team members (not just those in core functions) and create trust between team members. Trust is often built through responsibility: when you believe in your team members, they tend to deliver.
And as you set the example, trust will permeate within the team.
5. Encourage Resourcefulness
No leader wants a team that can’t take the initiative. Just like you should be able to improvise, encourage a culture where there’s room for ideas and action-taking without always asking for your approval.
Your employees will feel recognized (one of the key factors behind employee satisfaction!) and inspire resourcefulness in each other.
6. Instill a Positive Atmosphere
People who have fun are more productive. And every day is not a stakeholder meeting! To bring out the best in each team member, balance the performance and execution with more light-hearted elements like team-building and the casual GIF that makes people laugh (just make sure everyone feels included).
You can also have cross-functional team sessions dedicated to connection and relationship building, especially with a distributed team, and let the team members take turns leading activities like games and yoga classes.
When putting together a project or workplace team for cross-functional collaboration, it’s important to consider diversity. Ensure to mix different skills and levels of seniority.
Depending on what you’re working on, it may be beneficial to have different demographics and geographical locations (for example, if you have a remote team and you’re opening a physical store in a specific city). Depending on their age and gender, people may take different things for granted which gives valuable perspectives.
Having a versatile team thus opens up for more interesting and innovative solutions. Which can help you stand out in the market and get higher revenues!
Yes, it’s possible! We’ve all attended those tedious, endless meetings where we were tempted to close the laptop, blaming spotty wifi.
Make your cross-functional team meetings the highlight on everyone’s weekly agenda with a few simple tips that boost engagement:
Start with an ice-breaker question (such as asking how everyone’s weekend was).
Encourage everyone to use the chat function and emojis to stay engaged during the meeting.
Create break-out rooms where your participants can discuss in pairs or small groups before getting back together to share their findings.
Activate live transcription for more animated discussions. While Zoom has a built-in live transcription, it has its limitations. Among those, it only supports English and can be inaccurate when the speaker has an accent. Using a third-party software such as Airgram is a must for live transcription that enhances the flow of a meeting rather than disturbing it! Airgram allows for live transcription in eight languages. The intelligent AI assistant detects who speaks and labels the captions accordingly.
Export meeting notes as a summary – also handy for those who couldn’t attend. With Airgram, you can export the complete transcription of the meeting minutes to standard note-taking software such as MS Word, Google Docs, and Notion (or Slack!). You can also use the meeting clip functionality to select highlights and create a valuable tl;dr summary. Perfect for saving everybody time and avoiding the risk of people not reading through the meeting notes out of overwhelm!
Round off with a summary of what has been said and the action items. That way, everyone leaves the meeting feeling excited and ready to move forward!
Software and tools play a central role in effective cross-functional collaboration. Place everyone on the same page as you start the collaboration by clearly assigning what tools you use for what purpose.
This includes communication tools and routines: what type of questions will you take via email, and which ones over chats such as Slack? Should you loop in everyone involved for visibility, or just the people concerned?
Setting clear expectations for the tech stack and intended usage prevents unnecessary friction along the journey of cross-functional team collaboration.
Cross-functional collaboration is common across many verticals. Leading a cross-functional team can be more challenging than a team of experts within an area – but also more rewarding. There’s a lot of room for innovation and ingenuity that tend to arise only when diverse people join forces.
As long as you build trust, give trust, get resourceful, and bring your social A-game, you can look forward to many exciting cross-functional collaborations!
Tobi is a writer and communications consultant with five years of experience in creating content for corporate and non-profit organizations. She enjoys writing on best practices for business processes, technology, ESG, and climate change.