You’ve been there.
Your business has multiple teams that have grown and succeeded independently of each other. They’ve developed their own internal standard operating procedures—their own habits and processes to complete their work.
But you begin to realize that these teams are losing touch with each other. Work is getting repeated in multiple places, and slowly the broader company goals have drifted away from narrower department-specific goals.
Innovation is being replaced with statements of “because this is how we’ve always done it.”
This is the slow silo effect that happens within many businesses as they grow. Teams begin to develop their unique way of doing things that become more and more distinct from the broader company and turn the company into a group of departmental “silos.”
Now, the answer that many turn to—and rightly so—is to build a cross-functional collaborative team. A team that’s specifically designed to redirect these groups (or silos) back toward the broader or core goals and mission of the business.
Unfortunately, this process isn’t easy. Building a cross-functional collaborative team can seem simple, but there are many small details that can make or break their success.
And that’s why, in this article, we’re going to explore cross-functional collaboration from top to bottom, from defining what it is to how you can implement it effectively. We’ll look at:
- What cross-functional collaboration is
- A framework for doing it effectively
- The various barriers to doing it well and how to overcome them
- Finally, a real-life example to learn from
What exactly is cross-functional collaboration?
Cross-functional collaboration, as its name suggests, is when individuals across different teams in a business form a new team around a new goal. This can be a short-term (for a specific project) or long-term (for an ongoing growth strategy) arrangement.
The fundamental philosophy behind cross-functional collaboration is that businesses work better when every team is working toward the same big goals and everyone has clarity about their roles and responsibilities in accomplishing that mission.
What’s so important about cross-functional collaboration?
As businesses grow, it’s natural for individual groups within them to slowly form into silos. Over time, those silos develop their own habits and goals. What once appeared as one unified company and brand can slowly end up looking fragmented.
In many cases, when communication isn’t as good as it should be, different teams within the same business can slowly begin working on goals that are at odds with each other (or at least not pulling in the same direction as effectively).
In short, without cross-functional collaboration, a business—even if it’s a small business—can become less and less efficient over time.
In order to combat this slow misalignment, it’s important for these cross-functional teams to brush up on communication techniques.
When you can engineer collaboration between a diverse group of people:
- You’ll be able to connect dots that weren’t clear before.
- The business can generate momentum from more teams all pulling in the same direction.
- Everyone ends up learning more because they get to experience the perspectives of others who are viewing the problem from another angle.
- It’s easier for old ideas to be challenged, or at least reexamined, to make sure they’re still valuable.
Developing a cross-functional collaboration framework for success
So, at this point you might be thinking, well, how hard can it be? I guess I should create a cross-functional team.
Not so fast.
Let’s start with unpacking what typically leads to ineffective cross-functional collaboration.
According to the Harvard Business Review1, around 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional. They often fail on at least three of these five areas:
- Meeting a planned budget
- Staying on schedule
- Adhering to specifications
- Meeting customer expectations
- Maintaining alignment with the company’s corporate goals
Often, these teams fail because they don’t have a solid framework from which to function. Namely, they don’t provide enough clarity around:
- Who is in charge both inside and outside the team
- What specifically the team is accountable for
- Whether they’re focused on the right goals
Where does the solution begin? Well, the other 25% of teams that function better tend to have strong leadership. More specifically, cross-functional collaboration is more effective when there’s a single accountable leader.
After you have assigned such a leader, it’s important to then set a clear project goal. What are the goals, resources, and deadlines around this collaboration?
After you’ve set the goals, it’s time to define the strategy and identify tools that can help you execute that strategy. In many cases these include project management tools (and remote working tools if you have a distributed team), but there may be others as well.
What are some barriers to this framework in the wild?
Now, if effective teamwork were actually that easy to pull off, far more people would be doing it already.
The reality is, entropy is alive and well in business. If left to their own devices, relationships can break down over time.
Don’t let your team trend toward disorder and shortcuts that’ll create friction within your efforts to build cross-functional collaboration.
Here are some common culprits—and what you can do about them:
- Lack of trust
Often, a lack of trust can get in the way of effective collaboration in the workplace. Who wants to listen to someone who they don’t trust (or perhaps just don’t know that well)?
It’s important to have collaborative leadership that is comfortable with providing transparency of information to the team and listening before speaking in order to set a strong example for the team. You could also help your team build relationships beyond just the “work” too—you could look into virtual team-building activities that can bring everyone together and get to know each other better too.
- Social loafing
Remember in high school when you had a group project and there was always someone on the team who just coasted by and didn’t really participate actively? That’s social loafing, and it happens in business teams too.
Keep the teams small and assign specific responsibilities to each member of the team. Accountability is key. Match the skills to the goals you have for the team. And finally, build in a feedback loop that’ll reveal potential “loafers” quickly.
- Poor communication
This happens naturally, but it’s no excuse. If you don’t aim to over-communicate, chances are that you’ll naturally fall into a lack of communication. It’s just human nature.
Many of the solutions to the prior barriers will also help here—specifically, smaller teams, consistent accountability, and openness. If your team is spread out by location, having a collaboration hub or video conferencing tools can be very helpful. But what’s even better is if you can find an all-in-one platform or app that gives your team different communication channels to talk to each other on. For example, here’s a quick clip of how RingCentral’s app works:
- Misaligned goals and objectives
This happens when there isn’t clear and strong leadership behind a cross-functional team. Too many cooks in the kitchen and you’ll end up with a very odd dinner.
The key solution here is to refocus on the primary leader behind the cross-functional team. Task management tools are also incredibly useful here. If you can assign tasks and due dates to your teammates, it helps keep everyone accountable for the objectives they have to hit:
- Lack of trust
- Divergent technologies
This happens when everyone is bringing their own tools to the project. It’s natural to want to bring the existing tools you are familiar with, but it’s rarely helpful.
One way to fix this is to try to streamline the number of tools being used and keep it to only what is crucial for the project. Tools aren’t a “one size fits all” deal—everyone’s probably going to have to compromise for the greater good of the cross-functional project.
One of the main perks of sharing that team knowledge is that if an employee does resign one day, it’s easier to fill that gap because that person wasn’t the only one in the company who knew how to do a certain thing.
Quick case study: How Capital One built a cross-functional team
While every situation is different, here is one story2 from Capital One.
They brought together a cross-functional team to help build their CreditWise credit monitoring app, including members from product, design, engineering (both web and mobile), marketing, and data analytics.
Each individual team member technically reported to other people in their respective departments, but they were all able to collaborate under the leadership of Pranav Khanna, the VP of Product & Analytics.
What made this team successful was their unification around common goals and the sense of trust they had from the other departments. Each of the team members were able to bring their different perspectives and have healthy debates that influenced the development of the app.
Like Marvel’s Avengers—with each superhero having their own comic but coming together to form the Avengers when their collective strengths are needed— they were able to communicate, collaborate, and succeed as a cross-functional team.
Start with the strategy, then find the right tools
There’s no perfect way to build cross-functional collaboration in your business, but if you can stick to these principles and learn from this example as much as possible, you’ll be on the right track.
Looking for a tool that can help facilitate this type of teamwork in your business? Check out RingCentral’s desktop and mobile apps, which bring together team messaging, a phone service, and video conferencing—all in the same place to give your team multiple channels to collaborate on.