Cross functional collaboration is a process in which people from multiple teams or departments (i.e. sales, marketing, human resources, etc) within a company come together in order to work on a central project or task.
Cross functional collaboration can happen organically within your organisation or can occur as part of a formal project or process where the organisation is looking to leverage the skills/expertise of people across numerous departments.
Examples of Cross Functional Collaboration
An example of cross functional collaboration occurring organically could be when your Sales Manager approaches your Marketing Manager to work on a campaign to future warm leads. No formal project has been created for this idea to be implemented but both Managers see mutual benefit in working together.
Alternatively, an example of a formal project that requires cross functional collaboration within a team could include an organisation deciding to create a brand new product line. As a result they engage the engineering team to advise on the feasibility of actually creating the product, the sales team to assist with determining an ideal sales price and marketing who help determine the go to market strategy.
Each individual within this cross functional team may provide an input that in turn shapes the projected outcome or expectations of others. For example if Sales advise that the price point they can sell the product at is $100, Marketing may in turn use that to select a low cost customer acquisition channel using Facebook Ads rather than TV campaigns.
Engineering may also take this information and determine that they need to reduce the cost to produce the product by removing complexity in its design in order to maintain appropriate profit margins for the company.
As you can see cross functional collaboration happens in organisations on a daily basis, whether you realise it or not.
To take a closer look at cross functional collaboration and its impact on an organisation lets consider the following pro’s and con’s.
Benefits of Cross Functional Collaboration In Teams
Leverage the skills and experience of a more diverse group of people
Cross functional collaboration allows an organisation to tap into the skills and experience of a wider group of people. This in turn can create an environment that allows for more positive outcomes to be achieved.
If we continue with our example above, had the cross functional team not included people from the sales department the organisation may have incorrectly predicted that they could sell their new product for $200.
As a result of that engineering may have kept the cost of materials to build the product at $100 and marketing may have decided to use telesales, rather than Facebook ads to sell the product. Had this been the case the company may have found themselves with a product they were unable to sell, forcing them to slash the price to $100 and sell the product at break-even or a loss.
Create a more creative environment that leverages the unique background of each individual
Whether we like it or not we all have subconscious bias that affects how we look at problems and approach the world.
If we maintain this bubble like existence within teams then you open yourself up to a situation where everyone thinks about a problem in the same way.
By creating cross functional teams that are diverse in nature you can promote creative thinking and potentially identify more creative solutions to problems your business is facing.
Build greater leadership and management skills across the organisation
Making cross functional teams work requires a greater degree of leadership, management and communication skills.
While there can be a risk of projects going astray if you don’t have a strong manager at the helm, cross functional teams equally create the opportunity to upskill employees. Putting employees in situations where they have to step up and lead, manage a more diverse project or communicate effectively to get their point across are all important skills to develop within your organisation.
Old ideas are challenged and the pace of change accelerated
It is easy for businesses and individual business units to get stuck in their ways. Doing the same thing year after year works for a while, but eventually more nimble competitors will appear and be nipping at your heals.
By building out cross functional teams in your organisation you can force departments to change and make way for new ideas. Cross functional teams help bring new perspective to business processes that have dominated one department or another. By opening up the project or challenge to a wider audience change can in fact be accelerated.
Challenges of Cross Functional Collaboration & Teams
Despite the wide number of benefits available to organisations who develop cross functional teams there are potential challenges to consider. These include:
Misaligned Goals or Prioritize across departments
If the cross functional team does not have one central goal or objective that unifies them it is easy for each individual or department to have competing goals or priorities.
This slows down the pace of change and introduces politics into the decision making process. Very quickly it can cause a situation where the individual or department is more concerned about getting what they want, rather than getting the outcome that is best for the business.
Managing diverse teams and their personalities can be an issue
As teams expand, especially across departments, there is a growing number of individuals to manage and communicate with.
A larger team also means there is an increased chance that you will have a number of dominate personalities who compete for the leadership role unless one is clearly defined. Much like the issue with competing priorities above you can create a situation where different personalities compete to be seen as the leader of the group or situation.
Measuring Output Across All The Teams / Departments
As cross functional teams come together to solve a central problem or challenge their individual input can be lost in the wider project.
As a result this makes it difficult to determine if all groups are putting in an equal amount of effort, or if some individuals/departments are just drafting off the effort of others.
In addition to this, the headline metric against which the success or otherwise of the project may be judged does not always filter down nicely to each department. For example if the headline metric is sales success, but the cross functional team also included representatives from the legal department who helped make the sales contract more succinct, how much of the growth in sales is attributed to that decision, rather than the efforts of individual sales people or the marketing department.
How To Make Cross Functional Teams Work For Your Organisation
With a clear understanding of what cross functional collaboration teams, as well as the benefits and challenges that face organisations looking to improve cross functional collaboration amongst departments it’s now time to ask how do you make this work for your organisation?
In the rest of this post we will detail how you can make cross functional teams work for your organisation and start with having a strong leader/manager with overall project responsibility.
Strong Manager / Leader With Overall Project Responsibility
While cross functional teams look to leverage the skills, expertise and creativity of individuals across multiple business units or departments you still need a strong central manager or leader around which everyone else can rally.
This central manager should have strong communication skills and a clear sense of what the project and team need to achieve. They need to know how to balance allowing teams to have their independence and flexibility while still ensuring they remain focused on the greater goal/outcome.
A Clear Project Outcome
A strong manager or leader can only create a sense of purpose amongst the cross functional team if the project has a clear outcome.
To make a cross functional team work they cannot be thrown together without a sense of purpose and business outcome to achieve.
As with all goals, the goal for a cross fucntional team should follow the SMART methodology and be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time Bound.
An Effective Project Management Tool
A cross functional team with multiple individuals and business units contributing need a project management tool that helps keep everyone on the same page.
Project management tools such as Task Pigeon provide a central environment that allows tasks to be created and assigned to the relevant people and departments. Creating a sense of transparency across the cross functional team then allows everyone to stay on top of the project and understand the tasks that are currently being worked on.
Project management tools can also help foster stronger collaboration with in-build commenting features and act as a central repository for documents.
Provide A Sense Of Ownership Across The Team
With cross functional teams it is easy for the project goal or outcome to feel as if it falls under the domain of one or two business units, rather than apply across the organisation.
Companies that make cross functional collaboration work within their organisation ensure that there is a sense of ownership across the entire team. Much like having a central goal or objective, this sense of ownership ensures that everyone is pulling in the same direction.
Providing a sense of ownership across a cross functional team also helps create an environment where everyone feels as if their contribution is equally valued.
Recognize That Cross Functional Teams Aren’t Always The Answer
Perhaps the biggest lesson organizations can learn is that cross functional teams are not always the answer. Sometimes there are projects or issues that pop up where the focus of one individual or department can provide greater clarity and speed rather a group.
For example if there is an emergency situation that develops, whether it be a rapid decline in product sales because of a faulty in the good or a physical disaster that impacts a production facility, providing responsibility to one individual or team can often drive a faster response.
In these situations using a cross functional team where there is input from a variety of stakeholders can slow the decision making progress down. In these situations you may be better served by centrally locating the decision making power to minimise the impact on the business and get back to a business as usual situation as quickly as possible.
Summary on Cross Functional Collaboration & Teams
Cross functional teams are an effective way of promoting creativity and innovation within an organisation.
They can also create a strong sense of purpose, especially if they are focused on a central goal or outcome that the company can get behind.
However, cross functional teams are not always as effective as leadership hope. There are a number of challenges that should be considered, with appropriate policies in place to minimize their potential to disrupt the output of the team.
Finally, if you decide that utilizing cross functional teams are a good idea in your organisation ensuring there is a central manager or leader with overall project responsibility is a great place to start. That, combined with recognizing the limitations of cross functional teams will at least ensure the project gets off to the right start.
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Also published on Medium.