When discussing any business or organizational concept, it’s helpful to lead with: “Why does this matter?”
In the case of cross-functional collaboration — collaboration between different business units or silos—it’s easy to grasp the importance. First and foremost, for an organization to operate effectively, all the different parts need to be on the same page, rowing in the same direction.
That said, silos have been a pervasive element of business for years. Despite marketing doing things one way, sales doing things another way, and operations doing things a third way, companies have continued to succeed. In fact, a theoretical research paper analyzing the work of doctors showed that collaboration can actually hurt productivity in some cases.
So why is it so important now?
There are many reasons, but chief among them are these three:
MIT Sloan Management Review’s executive direct David Kiron penned an article entitled “Why Your Company Needs More Collaboration.” In it he states:
Digitally advanced companies are more collaborative because they pursue corporate objectives that depend on the effective use of technology, which, in turn, depends on effective collaborations. But increasing collaboration can be fraught: Different functions may exhibit a history of animosity toward one another; individuals with strong egos may not work effectively together; sharing relationships with clients may be anathema for others; and misaligned goals or mistrust can stymie efforts to create shared value with external partners. Overcoming these challenges can mean changing work practices, behavior norms, and metrics of success — in short, adapting essential elements of a company’s culture.
There are many potential challenges to cross-functional collaboration, and many are emotional or psychological as opposed to logical (egos, history of animosity, and poor relationship-building).
Many of us have probably worked at places where all these aspects come into play and get in the way of collaboration. Here’s some research to further prove the point Kiron made.
Susan LaMotte was an HR executive for 17 years, then went and founded her own company that focuses on “Whole Self” approaches to work. A few years ago, she penned an article for Harvard Business Review and this section especially stood out to us:
One of our clients was a $1 billion services company with a plan to grow to $5 billion. They had a detailed strategic plan in place that included increased collaboration and innovation necessary to grow the business. The company was already introducing activities in the workplace to increase collaborative behavior but it wasn’t taking hold. <br><br> We conducted research on what activities employees enjoyed. Outside of work, over 90% of respondents cited individual activities: cooking, running, knitting, cycling, reading. Outside of family time, few engaged in collaborative, group-minded activities, or really wanted to. Combine this with their roles as individual contributors during the workday and it’s clear why adapting to a more collaborative workplace wasn’t easy or comfortable for them. One employee summed it up this way: “Everyone’s in their own little world here.”
Everyone heads down, seemingly efficient, goals seemingly being met. There are problems with this way of working—specifically, not working cross-functionally and collaboratively — and those problems ultimately lead to additional problems. When you’re not cross-functional, you lose access to different viewpoints. That means blind spots become a problem, and it also means you are often making decisions without people at the table who could inform from a different functional perspective.
So, if those emotional and psychological challenges from the first quote are what prevent people from committing to cross-functional collaboration, how then do you begin to overcome them?
It’s helpful here to begin with a quote summing up a key theory on cross-collaboration from Financial Times editor Gillian Tett’s The Silo Effect.
Companies don’t fail at collaboration because not enough people will cooperate with one another. They fail when people work too closely in certain teams, functions, or departments without any regard for the rest of the organization.
Broadly, then: It’s not about a lack of cooperation. It’s about each individual team or unit becoming almost too closely knit or too enmeshed in their own processes, and thus not having a line of sight into the rest of the organization.
Here are three ways to prevent this from happening within your organization:
Lacking a shared language is often the cause of collaboration issues between teams. The same can also be said for shared work tools, which happens to be the next topic we need to address.
We’re big believers in the idea of “no one tool to rule them all” Even if you use Range, it’s almost assuredly not going to be the only tool you use.
But sometimes this idea of implementing many tools goes overboard, and that’s a big problem in the collaboration space. When there are too many tools, and thus too many things for employees to check, they will (1) stop checking some work tools that might be important and (2) tune out things that don’t seem consistently important. The human brain only has so much focus and mental energy it can give in a given day.
Ever worked at a place like this?
“Well the notes are in Asana and the docs are in Google and we’re updating on Slack but we also have a management board with Trello and we use FB for Work during the day as well as a private LinkedIn group and some mindfulness tools and a few productivity boosters. All software, of course.”
It gets exhausting. Employees burnout and crucial information falls through the cracks. Teams begin to distrust each other and cross-functional collaboration evaporates.
We believe in a simplified approach to collaboration so that an organization can both build team culture and focus on improving workflow and processes through setting cadences for communication through Check-ins and meetings (all crucial elements of cross-functional collaboration).
In for-profit organizations, we tend to ask teams to collaborate, but then we promote individuals. This makes sense financially; it’s very hard to promote an entire 10-person team at once, even if you’re a bank. But it creates a problem.
Let’s say a 10-person team achieves massive ROI from a project. Two members get promoted as a result and eight people remain at their current level and get assigned to new projects. Out of those eight, two get promoted a year later after more successes. Despite all of the success the remaining six team members have contributed to they are still not advanced.
This is a very hard problem to solve. The easiest way is to approach incentives in other ways, i.e. days off, flexible work, gift cards, movie passes, interesting client trips, and the like. This keeps people engaged in their overall work and the culture of the organization, even if their salary isn’t advancing rapidly. It also makes them more likely to work cross-functionally and a bit less likely to feel resentment about promotions over time.
Functional skills are great, and silos aren’t always the demons they’re made out to be, especially as a business scales. But silos can’t remain silos forever; cross-functional collaboration is important for customer experience and perception and for the overall well-being of your business.
The above is one guide to working cross-functionally, but we’d also love to show you how Range helps teams stay in sync and aware of what’s happening within their broader organization. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out.