What is Cross Functional Collaboration?
Cross functional collaboration is a group of people with different functional expertise coming together to work toward a common goal. In many cases, the team is simply a group of people from the different departments across a business working on solving a specific problem. A team of this composition has the potential to implement significant improvements throughout the organization, and thus is a powerful tool in a culture of continuous improvement.
This type of diversity allows organizations to:
- Create a culture of continuous improvement in which employees take ownership of problems and work together to bring about solutions
- Increase teamwork, leading to greater levels of commitment to continuous improvement from everyone
- Improve communication between diverse, dispersed groups of people
- Increase the chance that positive change sticks
The Benefits of Cross Functional Collaboration
Collaboration is a natural part of working in teams, and in most organizations, it happens organically within functions or business units. However, it is less likely to occur across different roles, departments or functions - which are precisely the areas in which it has the potential for the maximum impact. Cross functional collaboration is critical to improving business performance.
Here are just a few of its advantages:
- Different perspectives spur innovation
Everyone sees problems from their own perspective, and the view can be very different from the marketing office than the production floor. Bringing people from different parts of the company together can shed light on process problems and deliver innovative solutions that satisfy everyone.
- Increased momentum of change
Involving people with different areas of influence from the beginning helps secure buy in, empathy, and trust. There’s less “turf” to be protected and everyone is on the same page, so there are far fewer delays.
- Everyone Learns More
Collaboration with people who are experts in different areas of the business cross pollinates knowledge and helps everyone to understand how their work fits into the bigger picture. There’s certainly an advantage, for example, in having a marketing coordinator who understands how finance processes payments to vendors.
- Old Ideas are Challenged
Everyone knows how difficult it is to proofread your own work. A new set of eyes can be a huge help in finding errors and opportunities for improvement in all types of work. Cross functional collaboration creates an environment where “the way we’ve always done it” can be questioned and considered from a fresh perspective.
- The Playing Field is Leveled
Structure and hierarchy are important elements of any organization, but sometimes a more multi- directional approach can yield greater results. Cross functional collaboration means that not all ideas come from the executive suite or a single department with a dominant leader. People at any level can participate in innovation and contribute to the execution of great ideas, which increases buy in and engagement on the front lines.
Tips for Building Cross Functional Teams
Cross functional collaboration is critical to innovation and improved business performance. It is in every business leader’s best interest to lay the foundation for a united approach to innovation and improvement. The following strategies can help.
- Promote Diversity
It’s easy to grab one person from each department and develop a team, but if you really want to maximize the effectiveness of your team, you should create a group that is diverse across a number of areas - not just their work area.
Here’s are some ideas of factors to look for when developing your cross functional team:
- Resist the urge to overschedule meetings
When working with large, diverse, dispersed teams, it can sometimes take weeks to get everyone’s schedules to align for a meeting. Meetings also take away from the time your team has to work on their regular work, which is frustrating for them. For these reasons, it’s important to limit the number of meetings in any cross functional collaboration efforts, using time wisely. Make sure you leverage newer technologies such as communication and collaboration tools. At KaiNexus, we use tools like Google Docs, GoToMeeting, and KaiNexus itself. Continuous Improvement Software is a great way to get teams collaborating between meetings. This makes the rest of your meetings more productive, too!
When you absolutely DO need to meet, there should be a strict agenda, an assigned note-taker, and a well defined method to document follow up tasks. Often, we set a timer on a mobile phone to limit our time on any one topic. A surefire way to make sure a meeting ends on time is to remove the chairs from the meeting room!
- Measure the true impact
Enabling your cross functional teams to see the impact they’re having creates momentum and ensures the sustainability of the teams. People want to know that their efforts are making a difference; showing them their results will get them more interested in continuing engagement. On a larger scale, developing a standard way to measure the impact of every cross functional team can help you to truly understand the ROI of continuous improvement in your entire organization. Correct measurement improves the visibility and transparency of continuous improvement in your organization.
- Involve Influencers
In most organizations, there are some people who are natural leaders, regardless of what position they hold in the company. These people are well liked and respected, and they work well with others. It’s easier for them to inspire other people to participate in activities. They are the perfect individuals to involve in your cross functional collaboration efforts, because they’re more likely to be able to get the team engaged.
- Leverage Subject Matter Experts
The people in your organization who know the most about particular processes, products, or disciplines can help to accelerate your cross functional collaboration efforts by sharing their knowledge with the rest of the organization. Pairing a subject matter novice with an expert is a great way to educate the less experienced person, while simultaneously providing the expert with a new point of view.
- Encourage Random Interactions
Often, a spontaneous conversation in the break room can lead to an innovative breakthrough. Companies that are great at cross functional collaboration intentionally design the work space and the work day to encourage such random interactions. Google, for example, is famous for intentionally creating lines in the cafeteria and snack areas so that employees from different departments will have an opportunity to chat.
- Align Incentives
All of these other strategies can be undermined if employees throughout the organization are not recognized and rewarded for their team effort. It is not uncommon to find financial incentives that are based solely on the goals of one department. This creates a conflict with the employee’s own paycheck and achieves predictably poor results. In order to improve cross functional collaboration, leaders should set goals and incentives that require it and reward people for improving the overall system, not just one piece of it.
We saw a great example of cross functional collaboration when Array Architects, one of our customers, included an architect on a team working on solving an accounting issue. The architect recommended a solution that he had implemented years before. His idea solved the problem and saved the company money and time by utilizing a software program that the company already had access to. This solution that would have never been without the use of a diverse, cross functional team.
Why is Cross Functional Collaboration So Hard?
Cross functional collaboration involves teams from across the organization tasked with working on a single project or finding a solution to a specific problem. In theory, it sounds ideal. Different skill sets are brought in to approach the project from several angles. Seems like a thorough, efficient method, right?
In practice, however, companies often find that cross functional collaboration is a lot harder than it sounds. Here are some of the more common reasons why this style of problem-solving is hard:
- Lack of trust
When employees and leaders think of the organization as a group of divisible, compartmentalized groups the result is “tribalism” or silo-building. When there is a lack of trust between the tribes, collaboration fails.
Solution: Leaders can help bridge the silos and develop a culture of trust by aligning the goals and incentives of the organization as a whole, instead of rewarding selfishness and suboptimization. If mistrust is a barrier to collaboration in your organization, try starting with a few small opportunities for teams to work together to get quick wins. Seeing results can help develop trust.
Successful collaborative efforts should be celebrated, and leaders should be sure to broadcast improvements widely. Leaders and team members should be held at least as accountable for their cross functional, big picture efforts as they are for their primary role.
- Social loafing
Ironically, cross functional collaboration can result in a reduction of effort. Remember in school when you got put into teams to work on projects? Far too often, one person got stuck doing all the work. A lack of individual accountability causes what psychologists refer to as “social loafing.” The tendency to be a social loafer persists in adults, and it rears its ugly head in cross functional collaboration.
Solution: The cure for social loafing in cross functional collaboration is to develop a standard set of criteria by which each individual is measured. Continuous improvement software helps by giving leaders visibility into who is participating and who isn’t, so that recognition can be awarded to the high-performers, and the loafers can get more support and encouragement.
- Poor Communication
Communication is often a major issue with cross functional collaboration because departments operate as silos, with little back and forth between them. In fact, teams can develop their own language with words and phrases that have meaning only to them. Effective collaboration requires communication, so organizations that don’t actively support it struggle to act as a cohesive team.
Solution: The first step is to establish a common language around the entire organization’s improvement efforts. Adopting a business management methodology like Six Sigma or Lean can help because these approaches come with a shared vocabulary, but the same can be achieved without them.
- Misaligned Goals and Objectives
Both leaders and employees are typically measured against goals and objectives that are specific to their function and role. This makes sense, but it can also lead to suboptimizing, where everyone prioritizes activities that will help them meet their own local goals, leaving little room for projects or improvements that will benefit other teams or the organization as a whole.
Solution: Organizations that are serious about continuous improvement and cross functional collaboration must make room in the reward structure for collaborative activities. This may mean rewarding success on cross functional projects separately, or allowing for time and energy devoted to such efforts within the framework of the departmental goals. Employees should have a clear understanding of how their collaborative work will be recognized, and know that such efforts won’t get in the way of their achievement of local objectives.
- Divergent Technologies
It’s pretty common for departments to each have their own technology that drives everyday work. Sales reps, for example, may use a CRM system to track activities, while the development team uses an entirely different ticketing application. While it makes sense for each department to use the best-of-breed automation for their core function, this can hinder cross functional improvement activities.
Solution: Companies that embrace continuous improvement should do so using technology designed specifically for that purpose. Continuous improvement software should be standardized across the company and easily accessible by every employee. This unified approach to continuous improvement has the advantage of supporting today’s improvement efforts and creating an improvement knowledge repository for the organization's tribal knowledge, an asset that will pay dividends long into the future.