Teamwork is a fundamental element of humanity, so it’s no surprise that being a “team player” is a highly sought-after attribute on a resume. Despite such, many companies remain fairly limited in the amount of collaborative work offered.
Cross-functional team collaboration may revolutionize organizational structures, though there’s lots about it yet to be explored. Instead of work merely falling down departments, dedicated teams are custom built for specific projects or goals.
In the perpetual chase for better working practices, companies are always looking to get ahead. Well, “two heads are better than one,” so they say.
The concept of cross-functional teams (CFT) is not entirely new, but it remains a relatively unseen approach in most work environments. According to a 2019 Deloitte survey, 65% of respondents answered that “most work is organized along hierarchical function lines, but some cross-functional team-based work exists.”
This was despite the fact that 53% of participants said they’d seen a “significant improvement in performance” after shifting to a team-based model. Leading to better decision-making and more innovative solutions, it’s quickly gaining traction in management circles.
Cross-functional collaboration features people with different functional expertise working in a team, typically showcasing more diverse abilities than one would expect to see in standard silo structures.
While you won’t be shocked to see three marketers collaborating on a marketing campaign, a cross-functional collaboration may take form as a graphic designer, an SEO expert and a copywriter. This type of collaboration often leads to more inventive results than a group of people with the exact same function.
You can recognize a CFT by a few key characteristics:
The most effective cross functional collaboration teams are made up of people who are somehow diverse. Expect people to present different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. This diversity brings a unique set of strengths to the table, which can help solve problems in new ways.
Cross-functional teams are “highly saturated with multidisciplinary team members who work together to produce creative and innovative ideas for the project,” explains one 2002 analysis.
The way in which each department approaches problems and anticipates solutions can vary wildly. It’s not only expertise that varies, but also interests and passions, part of the charm of diversifying. Combining people in this fashion increases the chances that members go down unexplored yet lucrative avenues.
Any team requires strong communication.
Traditional work models feature predominantly vertical (hierarchical) communication, where managers are the exclusive point of contact between departments. The insidious customer service lines “I’ll just transfer you to…” or “Sorry, sir, let me check with…” act as reminders.
However, the cornerstone of cross-functional collaboration is lateral communication, where points of contact are numerous, but there still exists a centralized point of contact for all team members.
“In the cross-functional organisation,” reads a 2012 paper, “information circulates in a different way, compared with the traditional organization. Thus it doesn’t pass through hierarchical channels, but between departments and functions.”
When employed well, horizontal channels reduce bottlenecks and delays, one highly attractive quality of such a working method.
In silo-mentality organizations, separate departments have unique perspectives and priorities. Consequently, goals are framed differently between work sections. As example, the goals of the sales team don’t normally look the same as those of the I.T. department.
In cross-functional collaboration, members are working towards a common project outcome, so it’s especially important to frame them in a way that makes sense to all. By doing this, individual members can more easily assess how their actions contribute towards the ultimate aim.
However, it’s not simply the setting of goals, but also the continual reinforcement of them, as well as the organization ethos. As you’ll learn from our goal-setting guide, the reaffirmation of goals is integral to sustained commitment, but it’s especially relevant when bringing multiple departments together.
Note: It may be useful here to distinguish a group from a team, with regards to the workplace. A group is simply a collection of people assembled to fulfill a purpose, whereas a team has influence on the creation of their purpose, set an agreed-upon aim and work towards the common goal.
Depending on the specific project or goal, the skills needed for cross-functional collaboration will differ. Most commonly, these teams require particular subject skills, such as writing, designing or researching, based on the work required.
However, when goals are more abstract, a team may opt for more general skills, team members that are excellent communicators, open to new ideas and willing to share resources. As a general rule, these are some key skills a cross-functional team should strive for:
Obviously, any given professional is knowledgeable in their certain subject area. This extends well past teamwork, into the larger realm of job and career. Within cross-functional collaboration, however, having more experience or training in a particular area than others is a skill that each member needs to hold.
When their skills are applicable, subject experts will naturally gravitate towards leading or directing certain parts of the project. This usually increases efficiency, though it’s important not to rely wholly on this tendency, as the collective power of the team should be favored over the narrower perspectives of single members.
Communication skills are a vital component of a cross-functional team, and in fact everything under the sun. Assembling a range of personalities and skill-sets can be fantastically innovative, yet you won’t see much benefit unless the team is instructed in how best to communicate.
A software developer and advertising copywriter aren’t going to fully understand each other unless they make the conscious effort to learn. Detailing their specific work process and responsibilities to one another, or adopting each other’s jargon, are just some of the ways members should attempt to converse more effectively.
Secondly, though not any less important, good listening skills are essential for understanding the ideas and perspectives of others. With lateral communication, a genuine interest in helping others goes far, too. A CFT needs to communicate well to ensure everyone is on the same page.
Speaking of pages, a cross-functional team absolutely needs comprehensive documentation, as means to collect their ideas and keep track of progress. The more information documented, the better; making decisions or solving problems are both much easier when there’s a record to refer back to.
This applies to distributing meeting/group session notes, ensuring a regular stream of communications that could include:
...or perhaps even implementing an agreed-upon, standardized form of writing on shared documents (calendars, daily task reports or project-management software).
Documentation can also act as proof of accountability, particularly in the form of a centralized file that outlines KPIs, tasks and responsibilities.
A cross-functional team must have a clear goal or vision to work towards, just as with any project or pursuit. Every member of the team needs to be able to determine how their smaller actions contribute to the overall goal, which they cannot do unless the desired results are made clear.
Ambitious cross-functional projects can be the perfect time for team member’s to set themselves professional goals too. This type of collaboration does carry its own distinct challenges, but it’s still an ideal environment for picking up new skills. Enroll in a training program, or set personal productivity goals, to become a more valuable member.
Having clear goals increases productivity by providing a real sense of direction, helping to motivate team members and maintain focus.
It is important for team members to be able to express their thoughts and opinions calmly. Before decisions can be made, everyone listens and considers all perspectives. Within a team project, however, conflicts inevitably occur.
Completely eliminating such conflicts is an impractical aim, but CTFs do require mediators who can resolve issues quickly. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” so said Lincoln, but he left out this next bit. Having a protocol for resolving conflicts is crucial for avoiding escalations, which will hastily become toxic fractures harmful to the long-term success of any collaboration.
Cross-functional team collaboration is essential for fostering creativity and innovation in organizational cultures. They accommodate the sharing of resources and information in order to nurture powerful ideas, whether you’re problem-solving or establishing something new and exciting.
There are lots of benefits to this way of working, but here are the major advantages of cross-functional team collaboration:
When you gather a group of people who look at a problem from different angles, there’s a heap of stuff they may come up with that others missed. Cross-functional collaboration provides a greater opportunity for innovation, as members possess a unique collection of skills, experiences and passions typically unavailable in silo-structure organizations.
If there’s a marketing campaign to be done, a cross-functional team could include a graphic designer, an SEO specialist and a copywriter. Each person has a specific skill set, so together they will create better marketing campaigns than they would ever individually. A diverse team can cover more ground, ensuring all parts of the project are tended to, whilst potentially spotting overlooked aspects.
A cross-functional team is generally better suited to change, largely because one main focus is the diversification of skills, which makes it possible to share great knowledge, resources and information with one another.
A cross functional team might consist of a developer, a project manager and a product owner. In this example, the developer is working on a project with a tight deadline. The developer might be able to get help from the project manager who has been working on another project with a similar deadline in order to get through their work faster. Or the product owner might offer advice or feedback on the project that helps improve it even further.
This ability to share resources and information across different functions helps a cross functional team move faster than teams that are made up of people from one function only. This is what makes a multi-functional team adaptable in a heartbeat.
In any organization, there may exist gaps of knowledge or places of disconnect. These inefficiencies are damaging to overall productivity, yet they often appear to be unmovable obstacles. In fact, a major problem within CFTs is the inability to effectively share knowledge in efforts to continue learning.
Cross-functional knowledge sharing, proposes another 2012 study, are “vital for cross-functional teams to continuously learn and exchange information among each other [to] enrich the development and scope of knowledge and expertise among project teams.”
With a wider range of experiences, and a broader body of knowledge to draw from, a cross-functional team can showcase the best of an organization in one driving force. Each member is effectively depositing individual knowledge and withdrawing from the collective. When CFTs work this way, projects move faster but workers also become more valuable in future assignments.
Cross functional teams do often fail. In fact, an independent study of 95 teams in 25 corporations argued that “nearly 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional,” mainly because “teams are hurt by unclear governance, by a lack of accountability [and] by goals that lack specificity.”
In no time at all, a lack of vision can suck away a team’s motivation. Team-based work still requires a competent, perceptive leader, which sadly many teams go without. There are frequent issues that arise when working as a cross-functional team:
It’s one of the biggest reasons why cross functional teams fail, and precisely why framing objectives well is so vital to goal-attainment. A lack of clear goals and objectives is a recipe for disaster, leaving members unguided, working on unproductive or irrelevant tasks because they’ve miscomprehended project objectives, or simply weren’t given any.
Without shared goals, a team is unable to move forward. Unavoidably, they then waste their time, causing frustration and poor-quality performance in the future.
Agreeing on shared goals provides clarity, so that people explicitly know what they should be trying to achieve. It leads to better decision-making and more innovative solutions, while also serving as a measurable progress-tracker for when a leader may want to reward their team.
Cross-team collaboration is as much about what others are working on as what you are personally doing. You simply cannot collaborate with others if you’re unaware of their aims and current progress, principally because you can’t align your work with theirs, or the rest of the organization.
Remember that effective workplace communication requires initiative, not waiting for top-down information to make its way to you but rather being direct with other members, as if it were an open forum.
By communicating regularly with other team members – asking questions about what they are working on, whether they need help, their advice to you – the project can be perceived and appreciated as a whole.
Another reason why cross-functional teams fail is that team members are not at all clear on everyone’s role and responsibilities. If sometimes goes wrong, these unknowns can cause a massive blame-game, where false assumptions of who should have done what are carelessly thrown around.
A project manager can include a detailed role list as part of the team’s centralized key documents, with the goals and objectives, progress tracker and task-lists.
If there is a clear understanding of what each member is responsible for, project members are not overburdened with jobs outside of their job description. When viable, the work should be spread as evenly as possible to avoid over-extending or under-stimulating individuals.
Whenever you’re setting up a team of this nature, or just periodically assessing progress, run through these brief points to make sure your CFT is on track:
Friday automates status updates, provides check-ins, and helps teams feel connected while avoiding another meeting. Your team will have a solution that they love to use, while also integrating with your specific tech stack, including team communication, calendars, and project management tools.
Friday provides a structure to your team that layers on top of Slack, Teams, and other tools like Trello that you already use.
Work with your team on goal setting, and then connect your work via your preferred project management tool.
It’s very possible that this kind of teamwork becomes more prevalent, as working practices shift and evolve. Organizations don’t want to be left behind, seriously contemplating the transition towards more innovative collaboration methods, flattening the organizational structure and decentralizing authority.
While many believe the diversity of team-based work yields impressive results, cross-functional collaboration still appears too challenging for many. Managers are left wondering how exactly to juggle contrasting perspectives and ideologies, whether many hands make light work, or hardly work at all.