What is cross-functional collaboration and why is it important

Josh Smith
October 19, 2021
6
Minutes

What is cross-functional collaboration and why is it important

Cross-functional teams feature a wide variety of opinions and personalities, which can either lead to effective innovation and collaboration, or confusion, lack of accountability, and conflict. Learn more about the benefits and potential drawbacks of cross-functional collaboration, including how you can utilize online tools to enhance the effectiveness of your cross-functional team. 

What is a cross-functional team?

A cross-functional team is a team made up of people with different functional expertise who work together to achieve a shared goal. Cross-functional teams can involve employees at all levels of an organization with varying degrees of seniority who represent different functional departments.  

Cross-functional team examples

If your organization is a large one, a cross-functional team would include employees from different functional areas of the organization, such as someone from sales, another person from marketing, someone in IT, someone from accounting, and so on. 


Smaller organizations often aren’t large enough to require specialized departments, so employees with different job functions naturally have to work together on a regular basis. A cross-functional team could also include experts from outside of the organization who are brought in to consult on a specific product or project. 


The Fellowship of the Ring in The Lord of the Rings is an example of a cross-functional team. Boromir and Aragorn are experts with swords, Gandalf is an expert with magic, Legolas is an excellent archer, and it’s Frodo’s responsibility to carry the Ring/the fate of Middle-earth around his neck. A team made up exclusively of Hobbits wouldn’t get much farther than second breakfast on the way to Mordor, which is why it’s necessary that the Fellowship include people with a diverse range of knowledge and experience. 


The benefits of cross-functional teams

The modern business landscape is one of constant evolution. For example, consider the recent but rapid rise of remote and distributed teams, the increase in various agile practices being adopted by a range of different organizations, and the rise of automated business processes. In order to stay relevant and successful, organizations must adapt, collaborate, and innovate. 


And innovation isn’t a one-person show. A team with a wide variety of people from different backgrounds and with diverse experience and expertise benefits from a greater scope and depth of information. A cross-functional team is more likely to spark innovative ideas and challenge the status quo than a team made up of people with similar backgrounds and knowledge. 


Teams made up exclusively of people from the same background are less likely to challenge assumptions and are more vulnerable to groupthink—when a team of individuals reaches a consensus based on what would be most harmonious for the group instead of what would be most rational or innovative. This can lead to dysfunctional and irrational decision making. 

Successful cross-functional teams benefit from a wide range of different ideas, opinions, and experiences. Every team member has a voice because their function on the team is to represent their department. In order for a cross-functional team to be successful, every voice must be heard and engaged with. Employees get to understand the perspective of each department and learn from each other’s skillsets, building greater cohesion across the organization, improving trust in the workplace, and boosting employee retention. Employees who have the opportunity to learn and grow are much less likely to try and find employment elsewhere.



The drawbacks of cross-functional teams

Of course, with that many voices in the room, it’s also possible for a cross-functional team to quickly devolve into a dysfunctional team. In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional


Cross-functional teams can struggle to meet planned budgets, stay on schedule, adhere to specifications, meet customer expectations, and maintain alignment with the company’s values and goals. This can occur if the team lacks a clear goal and organized approach. Without a clear path or destination, the team flounders, hindered by a lack of accountability, specificity, and prioritization. 


Another reason cross-functional teams struggle is that members of the team have competing interests—some are only looking out for themselves or the department that they represent. Plus, if the team involves people with different levels of seniority, who should lead the team? These unfortunate power dynamics can lead to conflict and competition; who is accountable for what? If the team fails to achieve its goals, who does the buck stop with?  


How to improve cross-functional team collaboration

The drawbacks of cross-functional teams listed above are important to be aware of, but they don’t mean that every cross-functional team is doomed to failure. Rather, what they suggest is cross-functional teams require a more systematic, organized approach in order to be successful. To build effective cross-functional teams, focus must be placed on communication, collaboration, and coordination. 

Communication

Without communication, everything breaks down. Cross-functional teams need to be able to efficiently ask questions, give answers, provide context, and offer guidance to one another. Otherwise, team members are working in the dark. 


Communication is critical no matter the team, but cross-functional teams are more likely to have trouble communicating effectively because many different communication styles are coming together, sometimes for the first time. The team needs to take the time to communicate effectively; otherwise, miscommunications will occur, which can lead to misunderstandings, conflict, and derailed trust.


Continuous feedback can help team members speak more openly about communication preferences and potential communication barriers. Ensure everyone provides and receives constructive feedback no matter their role or seniority. 


📚 Read our Guide to Giving Constructive Feedback, which includes a framework for giving constructive feedback and best practices for ensuring feedback is well-received.

Collaboration

Cross-functional teams need to agree on methods and common tools for working on shared tasks. Processes need to be clear so that there’s no confusion about how and when team members collaborate.


When should team members come together, and when should people work individually? Clear processes will ensure everyone understands when they should collaborate and the best way to do it. Utilizing effective collaboration tools will play a major role in the success of a cross-functional team. All team members need to be comfortable with the tools and applications used by the team, and they need to understand best practices around collaborating with one another when using these tools.

Coordination

Cross-functional teams need complete visibility when it comes to each others’ progress and direction. What are you trying to accomplish? Who is accountable for which task? Who has the final say? What needs to be completed first? What dependencies exist between the completion of tasks? 


The team needs to be on the same page about what they are trying to achieve, how they will get there, and what dependencies exist. A clear project or product roadmap can help eliminate confusion and lack of coordination. The roadmap will clearly lay out what happens when and how different aspects are dependent on each other. A clear understanding of dependencies will help teams avoid costly bottlenecks that delay work and severely hinder productivity. 


Accountability is also key, as even if the team understands how things are coordinated, it’s up to each team member to be accountable for their fair share of the workload.


📚 Learn how to Build a Culture of Accountability in the Workplace.


Tools to support cross-functional collaboration

Synchronous communication tools 

Synchronous communication is any communication that occurs in real-time, such as a video or phone call. With synchronous communication, as soon as a question is asked, it’s answered. Remote teams utilize synchronous communication tools like Zoom and Slack when conducting meetings or collaborating on a project in real-time. 


Synchronous communication tools aid cross-functional collaboration for remote teams because they enable team members who don’t share the same physical working space to communicate with each other as though they did; this ability to communicate and collaborate in real-time enables coworkers to develop a deeper connection with one another. Being able to both see and hear the people you’re working with is a major asset when it comes to building rapport with team members

Asynchronous communication tools

While synchronous communication certainly has its benefits, it has its fair share of drawbacks as well, such as the threat of constant interruptions, increased stress, Zoom fatigue, and reduced productivity. Asynchronous communication is any communication between two or more people that doesn’t require them to be in the same physical space or communicating at exactly the same time, such as email. 


Asynchronous communication is vital to remote teams whose members may operate out of different time zones. Being able to communicate with your team members asynchronously reduces interruptions, enables more opportunities for deep focus, reduces the number of meetings you need to attend, and allows people to work how they work best. 


When you have a variety of different personalities and communications styles working together, it’s essential that you utilize tools that aid both collaboration and productivity. This becomes all the more important for cross-functional teams, which could feature individuals from different departments, backgrounds, and industries, as well as individuals with varying degrees of seniority.


WorkPatterns helps teams of all shapes and sizes (including cross-functional teams!) collaborate asynchronously. With WorkPatterns, you can manage meeting agendas with clear schedules and action items, build rapport with virtual teammates, leave continuous feedback, and communicate effectively. 

Want to keep learning? Follow our Blog, dedicated to improving workplace collaboration, and please reach out to our team at any time. We love hearing from you!


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