How to Make Cross-Functional Collaboration Work for Your Company

Major projects often demand all hands on deck from various teams. Business leaders and project managers must be adept at coordinating cross-functional collaboration within their organizations to gain fresh perspectives, drive ambitious plans, and keep departments aligned towards a common goal.

However, cross-team collaboration can be challenging to manage. Collaborations across multiple functions often fail to stay within budget or on schedule, fulfill the needs of customers, or align with the company's overall goals. It takes strong project management skills, quality tools, and thoughtful strategy to get past these possible pitfalls. 

For cross-functional collaboration to succeed, teams must align on the group's goals, tasks, and expectations. Project managers should communicate timelines and clear milestones that show progress towards the completion of the project goal. 

What is cross-functional collaboration?

Cross-functional collaboration is when a group of people with different functional expertise come together to work on a goal or project, e.g., the HR, logistics, and marketing departments collaborating to attract local professional talent at an upcoming career fair.

Like with other projects, cross-functional collaboration is best when the teams communicate, understand each other's roles, and contribute to the project plan.

Why is cross-team collaboration challenging?

Now we understand cross-team collaboration brings diverse talent together, why should this be any harder to manage than a typical team? 

The most common challenge of cross-functional collaboration is a difference in priorities or key performance metrics between the teams. For example, an engineer may be more interested in optimizing the efficiency of the applications running a new product. Whereas, a sales manager may be interested in the cool benefits the product has. 

When teams that do not typically work together are grouped to work in a cross-organizational collaboration, it is vital to kick off the project by aligning values and identifying the most critical metrics for success as a group. 

Below are a few more challenges in cross-functional collaboration.

1. Working in remote teams

With the coronavirus pandemic and various shelter-in-place mandates in effect, cross-functional collaboration has a big, new challenge. Many project managers now have to rely on digital means of communication to monitor group progress and share updates.

However, project management and collaboration tools like Wrike make it easy for cross-functional groups to maintain visibility into the project, collaborate, communicate, and even distribute relevant files on one portal.  

2. The issue of social loafing

Remember back in college when your assigned team had to deliver a project, but there was one team member who never contributed much? That's called social loafing, and it occurs in cross-organizational collaboration as well. To eliminate this behavior, a project manager should create metrics that affect the group, and also teams within it. 

3. Misunderstanding other teams' responsibilities

This often happens because different teams are so deep in their work they may not appreciate other teams' tasks and responsibilities. Different teams speak their peculiar jargon, which can complicate things in a cross-organizational audience. The awareness of differences between the teams in the cross-functional collaboration can be turned into an organizational strength if well managed.

What are some benefits of cross-team collaboration?

Now, we move on to the benefits of cross-team collaboration.

  1. Innovative ideas
    Sure, cross-team collaboration is never easy. It generates as much friction as it does productive output. But the silver lining of all that friction between conflicting personalities, perspectives, and process? It generates dynamic, innovative ideas. And without those new and vibrant ideas, your organization dies a mediocre death. 
  2. Engaged employees
    One of the best ways to get workers to engage is to improve teamwork. Ensure each team's opinion is heard and carry team leaders along with each new decision. Widespread organizational collaboration leads to fully engaged workers eager to take on new projects and embrace change — not as another burden but as a challenge that will take them to the next level.
  3. Accelerated business velocity
    With a cross-functional collaboration culture, you gain the ability to bring products to the market faster. Teamwork and communication speed up the entire process and make it easier and more efficient. The organization's ability to create value accelerates as a result.
  4. Improved flexibility of the organization
    When cross-organizational collaboration improves, so does the organization's ability to handle more significant projects. Teamwork and collaboration are the foundations of work methodologies such as Agile and Scrum, which allow teams to be more flexible and responsive.
  5. Better alignment with stakeholders
    When you talk about organizational collaboration, it's a good idea to especially focus on external collaboration with your customers, partners, and vendors — the stakeholders whom your project and your product directly affect. If you can leverage their feedback into your product development process, there will be better alignment between the customer's actual needs and your product's features. Win-win.
  6. More attractive to top talent
    Cross-functional collaboration gives your organization a competitive advantage when attracting professional talent. Highly motivated job prospects want to work under people they respect and whom they feel they can learn from. Thus if you have a collaborative culture already baked into your company, you have the foundation for attracting top talent, especially from the younger generation.

How to expertly manage cross-functional collaboration in your organization

1. Clarify every team's stake in the plan

At the start — the planning stage — of your project, encourage your team to speak up and negotiate responsibilities with you. Allow them to challenge opinions, suggest ideas, shut down unnecessary work, and share the peculiarities of their contribution to the project so that all teams and members in the cross-functional collaboration understand each other's work. 

This strategy gives room for collaborating teams to be heard, new connections to be made, and a clear direction to move forward. The teams involved feel a sense of control over their work when they are part of the planning from the start. This evokes responsibility in everyone involved in the cross-team collaboration. 

Airto Zamorano, Managing Director for Becker Ears, Nose, and Throat Center, challenges his team to negotiate responsibilities with him at the kickoff: "At the planning stage, people are encouraged to challenge any aspect of the plan with the goal of trying to eliminate any unnecessary work, or adjust the plan as needed. I tell them, 'Argue with me as much as you like on day one, but after that, I expect that we all stick to the plan!'"

2. Hold concept reviews early on

In a cross-organizational collaboration, it is wise to get project stakeholders' buy-in before spending resources or making a huge commitment. You can achieve this by holding informal concept reviews that bring different stakeholders together early on. 

This way, you get a broader perspective of what the project would require from each team, a good sense of the budget, and the feasibility of the project. Sharing things such as sketches and outlines encourage creative and practical inputs from the teams involved. 

Brad Palmer, Co-founder of Jostle Corporation, suggests holding concept reviews before a minimum viable product is made: "Implement informal concept reviews that get stakeholders together early in a project. This clarifies requirements, finds pitfalls, and broadens thinking right out of the gate. People are hesitant to criticize things once they become complete and polished."

3. Resist the urge to micro-manage

As a project manager leading cross-functional collaboration, you should give room for the teams to run themselves and handle things. You can create systems that allow teams and their members to do their best work instead of pushing mandates from top-down.  

Tyler Benedict, Founder and Editor of BikeRumor.com, has a unique hack for dealing with the flood of daily product releases and clamor of writers (both in-house and freelance) for new assignments. Instead of having one person hand out jobs, he set up a general "To Do" email inbox and gave everyone access. He says: "This way, multiple editors can simply forward news to it, and all of the writers have first-come, first-served access to new story ideas. They simply forward it to themselves when they're ready to start on it, and delete from the shared inbox."

4. Create playbooks

A playbook contains useful information about various parts of your project. Your project playbook will include process workflows, standard operating procedures, timelines, task dependencies, and relevant information for the teams involved. Open-sourced playbooks are an excellent way to allow everyone involved in the project to teach and learn from each other. 

Cross-functional collaboration is often an excellent opportunity for departments to learn from others in the organization. Creating and sharing playbooks for cross-organizational collaboration trains teams to adopt new skills that complement theirs but may never have been required in a silo mentality environment.

Steven Benson, Founder and CEO of Badger Maps, believes that the key to fostering collaboration is to provide your people with a platform for teaching one another. "This strategy works especially well when there are many people on a team who are doing similar jobs and performing similar tasks — for example, a sales team. We have shared Google Presentations that we can all edit and are organized by topic. When someone runs into a question or figures out how to do something, they can create a slide on the topic, and then anyone can benefit from it. Because we organize them by job role, these resources have proven to be extremely effective for quickly onboarding new employees to the teams as well."

Why Wrike is great for cross-team collaboration

Wrike makes cross-team collaboration easy, smooth, and secure. Improved visibility, team communication, collaboration tools, and automated reminders are a few of Wrike's benefits to project managers of cross-functional teams of any size. Wrike's project management software helps teams align, cooperate, and execute with ease and efficiency. 

Cross-functional collaboration is a challenging task for any organization, no matter how large or small. It is, however, a major step to growth, profitability, and innovation. With the right systems, tools, and approaches in place, your organization can manage cross-functional collaboration without recurring drawbacks. Try Wrike's software for teams to manage your next cross-functional collaboration with ease and efficiency.

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