What is cross-functional collaboration, why it matters, and how to become a team that plays well with others.
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?
Why cross-functional collaboration matters today
There are many reasons, but chief among them are these three:
- The state of modern business — It might be cliché to say, but business is moving faster than ever and companies are seeing potential rivals where they never would have existed before. With so many different opportunities and threats, you really need your employees aligned towards the same goals. If everyone is off working in 12 different directions, the house will collapse, and faster than you might think.
- The rise of customer experience — Using data from mergers and acquisitions, research has shown that the value of customer experience has risen since 2010, while the value of conventional brand attributes has declined.
This makes sense at face value: potentially one of the most important companies in the world since 2010 is Amazon, and its primary focus is customer experience. With so many different touchpoints for a customer — a company’s website, social media, customer service representatives, automated processes, in-person sales, and more—there absolutely has to be alignment on messaging, the broader value of the end product, and everything else that goes into a business.
That alignment comes from cross-functional collaboration. Without cross-functional collaboration, each silo can approach the customers they touch with a different message, which confuses customers and ultimately leads to churn.
- The rise of IT — Twenty years ago in a standard organization, IT was where people went to reset passwords or get help with the copier. Today, IT touches virtually everything within a company, virtually every hour. It’s made cross-functional collaboration between the “techie” people and “everyone else” essential in organizations, although some have been slower to catch up.
The quote of quotes on the challenges of cross-functional collaboration
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 stands out:
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.
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?
How to become a team that collaborates cross-functionally
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:
- Have more inclusive meetings — Whole-team meetings can be a complete drain and time suck, especially when everyone just goes around listing their different commitments and action items that day. But, whole-team meetings are necessary about once a week so that everyone has a clear idea of what everyone else is working on. The rest of the week? That can be done within an effective collaboration suite. (More on that in a second.)
- Use Fridays differently — On Fridays, Trello holds these events called “Coffee Talks.” People from different business units come together and discuss what they’re working on, “moonshot projects” they’re attempting, or even something interesting from their personal lives, such as a recent vacation.
This breaks down barriers between employees, which inherently fosters cross-functional collaboration — and it allows you to see what others are working on in an organic way. And when Friday afternoons at work can already sometimes feel like a wasteland, this is a great way to inject some much-needed energy back into the day.
- Reduce information overload and search overload — Two things that absolutely destroy cross-functional collaboration are (1) “You provided me way too much information on this project; I just needed to know this sliver of info to get my part done” and (2) “I cannot find the things I need from your department.”
In reality, both of these issues speak to having a shared language across an organization. That might feel a little buzzwordy, so let’s break it down a bit better. “Shared language” means that all assets reside in one central hub so that they’re accessible to all (with permissions for proprietary info). It would also mean that employees endeavor to use words that have a common meaning, as opposed to the “speak” of their specific business unit. IT people and operations people speak very differently (acronyms, key metrics, etc.) than sales and marketing people might. So, when trying to collaborate cross-functionally, using a more common organizational language is going to be most beneficial.
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.
Finding the right communication and collaboration tools for your team
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).
One of many elephants in the room preventing 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.