Cross-Functional Collaboration: A Strategic Guide for Modern Leaders

Leverage your employees’ diverse skills, experiences, and insights to enhance innovation and decision making.

By Tegan Samija  •   December 8, 2023  •   10 min read

Imagine your company is working on an exciting new product and throughout design and development all the departments in your organization collaborate seamlessly. The customer service team identifies your customers’ pain points while the product team creates a detailed product roadmap. Sales and marketing come up with the best ways to position your new product in the marketplace, and the development team executes your product vision flawlessly. In the end, you’re able to deliver the new product on schedule and it aligns perfectly with your business goals and customer needs.

Seamless collaboration between teams is essential for effective decision making and innovation, bringing together a diverse set of ideas, skills, experiences, and perspectives. However, research shows that nearly 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional. When poorly implemented, cross-functional collaboration can result in miscommunication between departments and disagreement over priorities and resources. We’ve put together a strategic guide to help you leverage cross-functional collaboration effectively and overcome the challenges that can occur when different teams start working together.

What is cross-functional collaboration?

Cross-functional collaboration occurs when employees with different skill sets from across a business work together to achieve a common goal. For example, select members from your marketing, product, sales, development, and customer success teams might work together to deliver a new product feature. Cross-functional collaboration can happen organically when team members naturally reach out to each other for input and ideas. It’s also used strategically by managers to help break down silos in business and enhance team performance.

Combining employee skill sets and experiences helps organizations leverage a wide range of insights, approaches, and problem-solving skills. Cross-functional teams can be working groups, where each member also belongs to their functional team, or they can be the primary structure of your organization. As a team-first approach, cross-functional collaboration encourages employees with different perspectives to find common ground and become a cohesive group.

Meetings worth showing up to

A well-run meeting can foster communication and collaboration by including an agenda the whole team can contribute to. Try using a tool like Fellow! 

Cross-functional collaboration benefits

Encouraging individuals and teams across departments to work together offers a wide range of benefits—here are some compelling reasons to add cross-functional collaboration to your workflow:

  • It improves operational efficiency. Cross-functional collaboration allows employees to benefit from shared insights and feedback on their work. Employees with different backgrounds and experiences can offer new ideas to help each other get unstuck and find better ways of working.
  • It fosters diverse thinking. Teams with diverse skill sets perform better than homogenous teams as employees encourage each other to think differently. Cross-functional collaboration also helps develop T-shaped employees, or employees who have general knowledge in addition to a specialized skill set.
  • It facilitates knowledge sharing. Employees from different teams can exchange information, ideas, and experiences more easily when they’re collaborating. This is key for effective knowledge management and helps employees work more effectively.
  • It increases innovation and creativity. Employees with different backgrounds often approach problems differently, sparking new ideas. Working cross-functionally is an amazing way to jumpstart creativity and bring together ideas from all areas of the business.
  • It builds a more connected team. When employees work together by sharing ideas and skills, they feel more connected and engaged, contributing to a culture of growth. Collaborating with other departments helps employees see how their work connects to the bigger picture and unite around a shared vision.

Cross-functional collaboration challenges and solutions

Communication barriers

Differing jargon, priorities, and communication styles can lead to misunderstandings between teams during collaboration. Team members may misinterpret each other’s actions and intentions, which can lead to conflicts and delays. Inefficiencies stemming from confusion and decreased engagement can prevent team members from doing their best work.

Here are some solutions for reducing communication barriers:

  • Hold regular interdepartmental meetings to promote alignment, inclusion, and engagement.
  • Use a project management tool to promote clear communication around responsibilities and deadlines. 
  • Run training sessions to standardize communication and teach effective communication skills. 
  • Establish regular communication channels so teams know how and when to communicate with one another. 
  • Encourage open and honest communication, allowing team members to freely express their ideas, concerns, and feedback. 

Misaligned goals and objectives

Different departments often have distinct goals, and bringing teams together can cause friction due to misaligned objectives. According to Liane Davey, author of The Good Fight, misalignment is the root cause of many challenges teams face.

“A lot of things you probably think are trust and team dynamic issues are actually failings of poor alignment.”

— Liane Davey, HR leader and author, on episode 146 of the Supermanagers podcast

To address misalignment, it’s important to unite employees from different teams around the organization’s broader objectives. That way, individuals will be able to see how their team’s distinct goals connect to the bigger picture.

Here are some solutions for aligning goals and objectives:

  • Establish clear, overarching project objectives that align with the company’s broader mission. 
  • Ensure each department understands how their contributions fit into the bigger picture.
  • Run an alignment meeting at the start of your collaboration to align priorities and expectations.
  • Use Fellow’s Objectives tool to create shared goals and monitor progress. 

Lack of trust and team cohesion

When teams aren’t used to working together, trust between them can be low and employees may feel guarded. They might also have preconceived notions about each other’s departments that prevent them from working together effectively. To collaborate successfully, employees need to build skills for working with other teams and develop empathy for their cross-team colleagues.

Here are some solutions for increasing trust and cohesion:

  • Define goals and values for your cross-functional team to promote unity. 
  • Propose team-building activities to help teams get to know each other and boost engagement.
  • Establish shared success metrics that will aid collaboration and improve teamwork.
  • Encourage employees to use Fellow’s feedback tool to provide feedback to colleagues and team leads (their feedback can be anonymous or identifiable).
  • Promote open, transparent communication to build trust, ensuring team leaders model effective communication. 

Ineffective leadership and management

Cross-functional teams can lack the clear structure and leadership of more established teams. As a result, decision making can be difficult and collaboration may become inefficient. It’s important to appoint a leader or leadership team who can balance team interests and streamline communication between teams.

Here are some solutions for improving leadership and management:

  • Appoint an experienced project leader or a leadership team to coordinate between departments and make informed decisions. 
  • Establish an effective decision-making structure so all teams’ opinions are considered without stalling progress. 
  • Provide learning and development opportunities to leaders to teach them how to manage cross-functional teams. 
  • Hold regular leadership meetings for the managers of each team to strategize and discuss. 
  • Encourage regular feedback between managers and direct reports so leaders can improve. 

Resource and priority conflicts

Teams may have an unhealthy competitive mindset and believe they need to compete for limited resources, making it impossible to work together effectively. Additionally, differing priorities between departments can hinder progress and further fuel this sense of competition. It’s essential for team leaders to foster a culture of collaboration and build a shared understanding between teams to align priorities and resources.

Here are some solutions for managing resources and priorities:

  • Implement a resource allocation plan to identify the resources available to your cross-functional team and manage them effectively. 
  • Establish clear, overarching project objectives to align team priorities. 
  • Create a conflict resolution strategy that prioritizes the project’s needs and addresses departmental concerns fairly. 
  • Use project management tools to track and manage shared resources. 

Measuring success and accountability

Teams often use different metrics to track success, and cross-functional teams need to develop a new set of key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure the success of their collaboration. Without these shared metrics, accountability can dwindle and performance evaluation becomes difficult. Establishing a new measurement framework is essential for maintaining motivation and improving cross-functional collaboration over time.

Here are some solutions for tracking success and accountability:

  • Create a performance measurement system that makes sense for all departments. 
  • Set clear, well-defined KPIs for the project. 
  • Establish a system of accountability where each department’s contributions and outcomes are recognized. 
  • Conduct performance reviews with team members to assess their collaboration skills. 
  • Encourage self-evaluation to promote accountability and self-awareness. 

Resistance to change

Introducing cross-functional collaboration can be a big change for employees at traditionally siloed organizations. Managers may receive pushback against working with other teams or experience decreased team morale and effort. However, teams often realize later on how beneficial it can be to collaborate; introducing cross-functional collaboration in a positive way and managing the process effectively can set your teams up for success.

Here are some solutions to help teams adapt to change: 

  • Develop change management strategies, including transparent communication and employee participation.
  • Provide training on the benefits of cross-functional collaboration to leaders and employees. 
  • Create a clear implementation plan before departments start working together. 
  • Ensure leadership endorses cross-functional collaboration to facilitate a smooth transition. 

Best practices for cross-functional collaboration

Establish clear goals

Effective collaboration occurs when team members are united around a shared goal and clearly understand the steps to achieve it. Make sure to dedicate time to aligning your teams’ objectives and the vision for the project on which you’re collaborating. For example, if two teams are working together, both team leads should meet to talk about their vision and strategy for the work ahead. Once clear business outcomes are defined, establish deadlines to help you stay on track. You can use Fellow’s Objectives tool to set and monitor goals, driving progress and accountability for your cross-functional team.

Foster open communication

It can be challenging to communicate with our own teams, let alone with other departments we’re not used to working with. To foster effective communication between teams, focus on your goals and choose a communication framework that will help you achieve them. It’s useful for teams to reflect on the purpose of their communication to identify the tools and strategies that can accommodate their differences. Team leaders should be sure to model open and honest communication with one another to set an example for their teams. Employing a universal communication approach will ensure all employees are comfortable with it and can understand one another. Leveraging a tool like Fellow will help you centralize communication and keep track of all your conversations in one place.

Create a collaborative culture

The culture of a cross-functional team can determine whether it ultimately succeeds or fails. Establish a culture of collaboration by creating opportunities for team members to learn about the roles, challenges, and contributions of other departments. For example, you can organize job shadowing opportunities, joint workshops, and informal knowledge-sharing sessions to help teams get to know one another. Encouraging employees to help shape their shared culture will ensure it’s a good fit across teams and promote ownership for upholding it. You should also consider how you’re going to foster a great meeting culture to promote effective communication and collaboration.

Leverage diverse skill sets

When complementary skills are combined, they become more useful than individual skills in accomplishing a goal due to coordinated effort. To get the most value from cross-functional collaboration, you’ll want to make sure you’re taking full advantage of the diverse skill sets being brought together. Identify the unique skills and strengths each member brings to the team, and share these in your initial cross-functional meeting so everyone is aware of them. Understanding each team member’s strengths will allow team leaders to strategically allocate team roles and responsibilities while also helping team members bond and tap into each other’s areas of expertise. 

Parting advice

Cross-functional collaboration is one of the most effective ways to generate new ideas and bring together diverse perspectives from across the business. However, it can be a big change for employees used to working in silos and may become a source of tension and disagreements. Uniting employees around shared goals and maintaining consistent, transparent communication is the key to success. Cross-functional meetings are an essential communication channel for teams and an important opportunity to build positive working relationships. Make sure to use a tool like Fellow to stay aligned on projects, ensure milestones are being met, and foster positive connections between teams.

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