Cross-functional collaboration: Benefits, challenges, and more
Cross-functional collaboration is best when individuals from different departments join forces to solve a common problem.
By Darcy Hogendorn in
Whether your company is a start-up with 100 employees or a large organization with several thousand team members, collaboration among your team members is key to success. Of course, it's one thing to have team members within the same department working together towards a common goal — but where a lot of companies struggle is getting everybody on the same page, including team members from different departments.
If you're looking to improve collaboration among different teams, you need to focus on cross-functional collaboration. So, what exactly is cross-functional collaboration, and why does it matter for your organization's success? We'll cover this, along with some common challenges, solutions, and practical tips for improving cross-team collaboration efforts below.
What is cross-functional collaboration?
Cross-functional collaboration refers to a workplace strategy where members of different teams or departments join forces, pool their resources and knowledge, and work towards team goals. The idea behind cross-functional collaboration is that it improves relationships between team members while also reducing siloing (where important information doesn't get shared between departments).
There are many potential examples of cross-functional collaboration at work, including:
- A content writer teaming up with a subject matter expert from another department and the marketing team to create a great blog post
- A product development team working with design, sales, marketing, and PR teams to launch a new product
- An SEO specialist teaming up with marketing and social media team members to improve SEO content and page rank
- Cross-functional collaboration can happen sporadically and organically or be part of a purposeful and long-term project. No matter how or where it happens, what matters is that team members are breaking through those invisible departmental barriers to get things done.
Benefits of an effective cross-functional collaboration strategy
There are many reasons to encourage and foster cross-functional teams in the workplace. Consider some of the top benefits of cross-functional collaboration that your workplace could enjoy.
Boosts employee engagement
When workers are so laser-focused on their own departments and goals that they fail to see the bigger picture, this can hurt engagement. On the other hand, when team members work cross-functionally with other departments, it's easier for them to see their important role in the organization's big-picture goals and outcomes. This, in turn, leads to better engagement — which is difficult to achieve these days.
And of course, when team members feel genuinely invested and engaged in their work, they're more likely to stick around. When you consider that it now costs more than $4,100 to onboard a new employee on average, it's easy to see why engagement matters.
Bridges the gap between departments and individuals
Rather than seeing themselves as individuals within your organization, cross-functional collaboration breaks down silos between departments and encourages team members to think of themselves as less of an island. Instead, they're able to see how all the parts of the business fit together and feel more connected to the top-level mission and goals.
Builds a thought-provoking and creative workplace
When ideas are shared between departments rather than kept to a smaller group, the potential for innovation and creativity is endless. Although an employee from the customer support department or sales team may not be the one designing new products, the reality is that they do have some valuable insights into customer needs. When that information is shared directly with the product development team, the company's next product can be much more successful because it is designed with the end user in mind.
While it's true that not every cross-functional idea will be a good one, the truth remains that opening up the opportunity for departments to share ideas results in a more thought-provoking and creative workspace for all.
Promotes change as traditional ideas and processes are challenged
Over time, when department members become hyper-focused on their own processes, it becomes easy for team members to get stuck in old ways of thinking and doing things. Improving cross-functional collaboration allows teams and departments to share ideas more freely. This, in turn, can challenge some of that stale thinking and breathe new life into each department (and the organization as a whole).
As old ideas are challenged and different perspectives are introduced, new ideas and perspectives can emerge to move the organization forward and gain a competitive edge.
Obstacles to good cross-functional collaboration (with solutions)
Clearly, there are many ways in which an organization of any size can benefit from strong cross-functional collaboration. Of course, getting to that point of interdepartmental teamwork isn't always a walk in the park. In fact, there are many common challenges that project managers and other professionals face while trying to encourage cross-functional collaboration in the workplace.
Obstacle: Not having a shared understanding or shared context
One of the biggest challenges to overcome is that members of different departments often have inconsistent access to information. Some teams may have greater understanding of a current initiative because they have more relevant context — whether it’s because of their roles within the company, or a greater communication breakdown. When diverse teams lack a shared understanding, it can be difficult for them to work together successfully because no one’s on the same page.
Solution: Provide the right context
The best thing you can do in this situation is to make sure that everyone involved in a cross-functional collaboration initiative has the right context. You can achieve this with clear communication with all team members involved in the collaboration: Openly discuss why a project is important, how it ties into big-picture company goals, why the teams are collaborating in the first place, etc.
Team meetings are a great way to provide context, and tools like Rewatch that record virtual meetings and create automatic transcriptions serve as documentation that team members can refer back to as needed throughout the project.
Obstacle: Inconsistent communication and documentation
Another challenge team leaders and project managers should prepare for is handling different communication styles between departments. Every team has its own ways of communicating and documenting progress: different tools, different habits, etc. The more departments (and thus more individuals) you add into the mix with cross-functional collaboration, things can get even more complicated as potential miscommunications arise.
Solution: Agree on what's communicated when, where, and how
There are many reasons why holding a kickoff meeting at the beginning of a project is beneficial, but one of the most significant benefits is that it gives everyone the opportunity to agree where and how to share information.
With many different teams all bringing their respective communication preferences to the table, a quick meeting is a great way to hash out where project information should live, how documentation will be handled, etc. Establishing communication expectations early on will reduce miscommunications, help keep everybody on the same page, and define a single, consistent channel for sharing information.
Obstacle: Building lasting trust between departments
Employees tend to be most comfortable working with members of their own departments. When you suddenly expect them to collaborate with members of other departments with whom they've never worked before, an inherent mistrust often develops. This lack of trust may be rooted in past issues between departments or simply be born out of a natural inclination to mistrust an unfamiliar person or group of people.
Solution: Communicate consistently, celebrate wins, and encourage feedback
Regardless of the reason, team members will need to break through trust issues to work meaningfully between departments and achieve successful cross-functional collaboration. Project managers can help by encouraging team communication as much as possible; this, again, is where setting up team-building meetings with ice breakers can go a long way. The more these team members can get to know each other, the more trust they'll build and the more comfortable they'll eventually become working together.
Likewise, it's a good idea to start with small projects as teams begin working together. When smaller projects complete successfully, teams can celebrate a shared victory and further build their sense of camaraderie. In addition to encouraging regular feedback between teams, this can go a long way toward building lasting trust between departments.
5 tips for improving cross-functional collaboration
Now that you understand some of the inherent challenges of implementing a cross-functional collaboration strategy at your workplace, what are some practical and effective steps you can take to get started?
1) Create the framework before diving into the project
First and foremost, get into the details of your project before you start putting groups together. This means creating a detailed framework for which teams will work together, their shared goals or outcomes, and what milestones they should be hitting along the way. Ideally, you'll have specific metrics and KPIs you can track to get a better sense of progress. Make sure your employees know these metrics and their importance within the grand scheme of things.
2) Encourage team-building activities
Cross-functional collaboration brings together several different personalities, many of whom have never worked together before. While this sounds great (and it can be a beautiful thing), sometimes it can be difficult for remote team members to work successfully when they’re unfamiliar with one another. Team-building can be a great way to break the ice and help cross-functional collaborators connect on a more meaningful level. While completing the project (and doing it well) is the priority, it’s also important to have some fun to prevent burnout. Incorporate some unique virtual team-building activities to encourage team members to get to know each other in a non-work context — which can help them work together more successfully in a work context.
3) Put the right tools in place
The right tools can make a huge difference in the success of your cross-functional teams. When people are working across departments, having a centralized means of communicating, sharing documents, and even holding online meetings is the best way to keep everybody on the same page. Using a platform like Rewatch for your internal communications can help keep everybody in sync and improve collaboration — regardless of whether team members communicate across the room or the country. And with features like built-in screen recording, this platform can especially come in handy as more companies turn to remote work. In fact, a Forbes article estimates that about 70% of the American workforce will be remote by 2025.
4) Keep full-team meetings to a minimum
With so many people working together, you can't expect everybody's availability to line up for full-team meetings on a regular basis. While it's important to sync up with everybody when possible, you'll probably have more success simply making sure everybody is well informed and on the same page. With clear expectations, you can avoid the need for full-blown meetings while ensuring that everybody knows their tasks and goals.
5) Track performance and change if you need to
A little accountability can go a long way toward boosting productivity and motivation. Making sure that you're defining and tracking KPIs (and that every team member knows what they're responsible for) can help keep things moving and give each team member a sense of personal responsibility. Just be sure to track and display these metrics in a centralized location where everybody can see their performance as needed. And, of course, be prepared to make changes or adjustments as the project progresses.
Enhance your organization's cross-functional collaboration with Rewatch
In a perfect world, teams would collaborate seamlessly across departments. In reality, though, this is rarely the case — unless you've taken these proactive steps to resolve cross-functional challenges and support effective communication. An easy-to-use solution like Rewatch encourages cross-functional collaboration by centralizing your teams' internal communications while using video to connect employees across departments and even across the globe. Find out more and request your free demo today!
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