It takes focus to achieve any goal, but maintaining focus can be difficult when working across teams or departments.
For example: Say you’re launching a new feature. To do this, you’ll likely need to involve stakeholders from engineering, customer success, marketing, design, and sales in order to successfully bring your updates to market.
This type of teamwork is called "cross-functional collaboration," or interdepartmental collaboration, and refers to a company’s different operational areas working together to solve problems and meet deadlines. This type of team collaboration can be an excellent method of problem-solving because it brings together different perspectives and different skill sets.
Team members who might never have the opportunity to cross paths otherwise have the chance to work together and unlock opportunities for innovation. But successful cross-functional collaboration only works with the right skills, frameworks, and guidance to support it.
In this guide we’ll cover:
- What is cross-functional collaboration
- Benefits of effective cross-functional collaboration
- Common challenges cross-functional teams face
- Best practices for effective cross-functional collaboration
- Cross-functional collaboration skills leaders should cultivate
What is cross-functional collaboration?
Cross-functional collaboration occurs when people across different teams or departments work on a specific project or goal. It leverages the diverse skills and specialized knowledge of each team member to brainstorm better ideas, solve difficult problems, and achieve better outcomes in an organization.
The team members engaged in cross-functional collaboration can be at any level or role based on the project needs — an entry-level marketing employee, a customer success manager, or members of the DevOps and engineering teams.
Teams are expected to be self-directed and to complete the project without oversight from their individual managers. A member of the team will serve as the project manager and lead the project, while the other members will be assigned specific roles. The project assigned to the cross-functional team is usually something that the team members work on alongside their regular day-to-day tasks.
Benefits of cross-functional collaboration
Companies that make use of cross-functional collaboration often benefit from increased employee engagement, improved work processes, and are able to develop solutions faster, reacting more nimbly to problems.
Increased employee engagement
If you work in a department long enough, you may start to notice distance developing between teams. While this distance may help you to concentrate on your work, ultimately, lower levels of engagement with the other employees can create tension, misunderstanding, or a feeling of isolation.
When you combine groups to create a single cross-functional team, you’ll see more teamwork, better brainstorming sessions, and a greater sense of the company’s big picture. All of these elements increase employee engagement, which then increases productivity and job satisfaction.
Streamlined work processes
Team leaders of these cross-functional collaboration groups will be able to streamline processes as they create new workflows for each specific project. Part of this includes leveraging effective frameworks for cross-functional collaboration.
Since each new project may have a new team, it’s an opportunity to increase efficiency. Team members can contribute by implementing what they’ve learned from previous projects to improve processes and help find and solve issues in a timely manner.
While there may be initial growing pains in the early stages of cross-functional projects, the long-term effects of implementing cross-functional collaboration outweigh the stunted productivity you may witness during the adjustment period.
Defined roles and goals
When working in a cross-functional team, understanding both your team's roles and the company's goal is crucial — and often clearer.
This task is the job of the team leader or manager to create a clear and concise plan that every team member contributes to. Open discussions should become regular to gather input on how everyone is performing and progressing.
The assignment will run more smoothly if everyone is comfortable with and confident in their responsibilities.
Related: How to create a stakeholder map [templates & examples]
Working unbothered at your desk might seem like the secret to productivity, but isolating yourself from others prevents outside opinions and theories, resulting in a lack of innovation.
Plus, a workplace operating without established teams may lead to breakdowns in communication and employees who can’t adapt to new challenges.
Cross-functional collaboration gives each department the opportunity to offer feedback on marketing strategies, draft designs, and product mockups to find the strongest path forward.
Improved alignment across departments
Cross-functional collaboration improves team alignment by ensuring members have clearly defined roles and clear goals to work toward. Due to the project’s temporary nature and the clarity of the project plan, teams stay focused on the plan set forth and contribute equally.
When companies use cross-functional collaboration, people from different departments who are working on the project learn more about what’s happening throughout the company rather than remaining in their siloed departments. They may share this information with their regular day-to-day department team members, which improves transparency and eliminates information silos.
Common challenges of cross-functional collaboration
Don’t expect your collaboration efforts to work perfectly from Day One. You’ll likely need to guide the team through trust and communication issues as they get used to accommodating various voices and opinions.
Here are some tips for solving the common challenges faced by cross-collaborative teams:
While collaboration sounds great on paper, people may disagree about what’s most important or how to reach the finish line.
To avoid conflicts, make sure the company's goals are visible to everyone. Set clear expectations in team meetings and demonstrate how they align with the overall mission. When team members disagree, they’ll be able to turn to the bottom line for clarity.
Collaborative tools like Mural provide a space to clearly outline everything the company is looking to accomplish, allowing everyone to see what they can work on and who’s available to assist.
Lack of trust
If you don’t know your new team members, trusting them to do their share might be difficult. At first, it may seem like more time is being spent on resolving disagreements than on actual work.
It takes time to build trust, so build opportunities for the team to grow and let it come naturally. If possible, start with more straightforward collaborative work and small tasks to help the group acquainted before diving into larger, higher-stakes projects.
If this isn’t an option, one way to build rapport among a team is by running icebreakers. These quick team-building activities can help a cross-functional team get to know each other, build trust, and cultivate psychological safety.
Additionally, project leaders need to be open-minded. Similar to how people thrive under different learning styles, a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. Each project should be evaluated to determine what project management techniques will work best. It’s possible that some projects will be best served by using multiple techniques to achieve the best results. Stakeholders need to keep this in mind, too.
Resistance to new working strategies
Changing the status quo is often scary and might seem unnecessary. But maintaining the status quo limits opportunities to increase efficiency and productivity in the office.
Someone stuck in their ways will most likely reject new tools that are forced upon them. Roll out new strategies and workflows slowly so team members can adjust and offer feedback. Their opinions matter, and implementing their feedback will likely optimize new strategies — and put reluctant coworkers at ease.
Less communication, more misunderstandings
Some team members simply struggle in group settings and prefer to work independently, which runs the risk of creating an impasse in a cross-functional team.
But if you have team members who really benefit from working on their own, increase communication. Frequent check-ins, asynchronous collaboration, and email threads allow them to work on their tasks alone while keeping everyone in the loop about their progress.
Best practices for effective cross-functional collaboration
We’ve gone over the benefits and challenges that come from a cross-functional working environment, but now come the worries about execution.
Is the equipment up to par? Is the plan clear and concise? Are the goals well-established? These are just some of the questions you need to start asking yourself. But implementing these best practices will help you create the most effective cross-functional collaboration plan and avoid hiccups:
Create a collaboration plan
You have to establish a plan before assigning roles or setting deadlines. This plan should take into account the company's objectives, employees' strengths and weaknesses, and future obstacles.
Throughout the collaboration, reference the plan to assess bandwidth, understand roadblocks, and settle disputes over execution.
Use the right technology
In today's high-tech world, it's nearly impossible to find success without the right tools at your disposal. Outline daily tasks and future objectives to know what tools you’ll need to make the cross-functional collaboration workplace successful.
Video conferencing platforms like Zoom and Google Meet help remote teams communicate across time zones and locations, while programs like Slack and WhatsApp keep team members at arm’s reach.
Collaboration platforms like Mural let you not only organize projects and ideas in one convenient location, but also bring everyone together in a shared digital space. This levels the playing field and ensures broad participation and engagement, which drives productivity and innovation, as well as better team alignment.
Diverse teams mean different perspectives
Diversity in the workplace isn’t just about age, gender, and race. It involves skills, education, and experience. These factors mean teams have the benefit of many new and different perspectives on pressing issues.
Understand that everyone's opinion matters in a cross-functional team setting. A young colleague might see a solution they learned recently in school that an older employee might not notice, while seasoned team members may have encountered the problem before and know what to do to resolve it quickly.
Related: Learn how GitLab involved cross-functional stakeholders to conduct better brainstorming and ideation
Establish and reinforce shared goals
No matter how important your team’s goals are, you must understand that the other teams feel the same. It's not uncommon for your team to have individual objectives that don’t overlap with theirs. Understand that each team’s goals will sometimes come second to the project.
When this happens, return to the company objectives and key results (OKRs). Who's assigned to what job, what are the deadlines, and what’s the top priority? How do these efforts tie into company initiatives and the bigger picture?
Hold frequent meetings that reiterate these points to avoid misaligned goals and keep everyone on track. Be deliberate about developing common goals to improve alignment and buy-in across different areas of expertise.
Despite its value, many employees fear criticism. They see it as a sign of failure or a source of embarrassment. But remember, you're still growing, both in the company and in your career.
If someone takes the time to point out how your performance could have been stronger, listen to them. Don’t assume they’re trying to single you out. Constructive feedback will help you and your team improve. Welcome these challenges and insights — this is how you grow.
5 management skills to improve cross-functional collaboration
Without key management and leadership skills, cross-functional collaboration won’t be successful. Here are five skill sets that help team leaders get the most out of cross-team collaboration.
Team leads should be aware of the various communication channels available to them and their teams and know how to use them. They should also get to know the communication styles of their team members.
Some may prefer email, and others may prefer messaging on Slack or Teams. The apps you use are less important than the norms you create and follow. You might not be able to communicate with each person in their individual preferred manner, but it can be helpful to establish a set of norms for knowledge sharing.
When working on a project, decide how the team will communicate from beginning to end and then stick to it. Communication can be done in multiple ways, but be sure the team understands where and how they’ll be expected to communicate.
For example, perhaps you opt to do quick daily updates in a Slack channel, while feedback and questions will be gathered in project documents in Mural. Then you set up a weekly email cadence that includes project updates, KPIs, and metrics that will be sent to the team and stakeholders.
Decision-making is a skill that can be sharpened, and knowing how to approach it helps keep project timelines on track. When making a decision about the project, like the best project management methodology to use, weigh the pros and cons of each option and how it will affect the outcome. If you’re choosing between the waterfall method or an agile method, consider how each gets you closer to your goal.
Early on in the decision-making process, gather information from a third party, like a data analyst on your team who can provide more insight, or reach out to a subject matter expert for their opinions. Having someone who’s knowledgeable inform your decisions helps you consider factors you may otherwise be unaware of. Doing this sooner rather than later will prevent you from making a rushed or uninformed decision.
Make time for team bonding. This could take the form of a quick icebreaker activity to warm up the team and introduce people, or a separate meeting where team-building is prioritized and discussion about the project at hand is discouraged.
Team building helps cultivate trust and respect among your team, but it’s also about more than just bonding. Trust team members with their specific skill set, give them honest feedback, and praise teamwork and good results. A lack of trust can make team members reluctant to share knowledge and communicate. Make sure participants know that their input, ideas, and feedback are valued. This instills a sense of psychological safety, so employees feel comfortable fully contributing in the workplace without being afraid of negative consequences.
Be clear about project parameters, the role of each team member, who is responsible for each task, and any guidelines or rules the team should be aware of. The clearer you are, the easier it is for the team to follow protocols and keep everyone accountable for their contributions.
Cross-functional teams may benefit from a collaborative, decentralized project management approach, giving members more ownership and accountability for their functional outcomes.
Understand the various types of project management and the techniques they entail, so you can structure your project for success. Is the project best suited to agile methodologies? Perhaps Scrum or Kanban is best. Knowing what project management tools and methodologies you’ll be using from the get-go will guide how you gather and store project information. It also helps you structure your key project information so others can easily access it and access important details, like OKRs and project deadlines, quickly.
No one wants to encounter conflict, but it happens. Knowing what to do when conflict arises will help you keep projects on track and build an effective cross-functional team. Use active listening skills to make sure team members feel heard when they are working through conflict. Be empathetic and show your team that you recognize their feelings and perspectives, but be calm and bring a positive attitude to the table.
Don’t focus on who might be wrong or right in a conflict. Evaluate the situation based on what’s best for reaching the team’s goals and the success of the project. Remind team members that all input is appreciated and keep the conversation to the problem at hand rather than the people involved.
Where possible, read nonverbal communication cues. If someone is, potentially unknowingly, making a disappointed face during a meeting, consider touching base with them afterward to find out why. Recognizing team members’ emotional states early on can help prevent conflict from escalating into bigger problems down the line.
Make cross-functional team leadership work for your company with digital collaboration tools
In summary, cross-functional collaboration is a powerful tool for driving innovation and improving organizational performance. By bringing together diverse perspectives and expertise from various departments, organizations can break down silos and foster a more collaborative culture.
With the right skills — and the right resources — your company will thrive using cross-functional collaboration. Remote work tools and project management software help your team communicate asynchronously and keep projects moving forward.
With digital tools like Mural, you give your team a workspace where they can brainstorm, outline, and collaborate in real-time. By improving collaboration efforts throughout your company, you can boost innovation, agility, and employee engagement.
If you need a place to start, try out the cross-functional team plan template for free.