You probably hear people sing the praises of cross-functional collaboration, but what does it actually mean? For our purposes, cross-functional collaboration occurs when people from different operational areas join forces to solve problems or implement process improvements. Many of the problems organizations find most challenging involve the moments when work passes from one department or team to another. That’s why cross-functional collaboration is such an important continuous improvement approach.
Examples of cross-functional improvement projects include:
The possibilities are endless and depend on the nature of the organization, but there are opportunities for collaboration in small businesses and huge enterprises alike.
The ability to solve problems that impact more than one team or department gives your organization the opportunity to excel in a competitive marketplace. In addition to the benefits to the origination, knowing how to work with people from different teams is an advantage for individuals as well.
Here are just a few reasons that cross-functional collaboration is an essential skill:
Everyone sees problems from their own point of view. Bringing people from different parts of the company together can shed light on process problems and deliver innovative solutions that satisfy everyone.
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.
Collaboration with people who are experts in different areas of the business cross-pollinates knowledge that's sometimes hidden and helps everyone to understand how their work fits into the bigger picture.
The makeup of your team will have a big impact on your project’s success. When putting it together, consider:
Each person’s role is important, but there are other factors to consider when creating a diverse team. Think about factors including experience, ability, skills, seniority, tenure, age, gender, and location.
In most organizations, there are some people who are natural leaders even without a formal leadership role or title. 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.
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.
Leading a diverse team comprised of people from various functional areas is not a small ask. Effective leadership is the key to overcoming the barriers to effective cross-functional collaboration. The following skills are critical:
The ability to clearly communicate the purpose, status, and results of your team's work is a requirement for success. Cross-functional leaders should develop a communication strategy with a regular cadence so that everyone knows when and how to expect updates.
Documenting every element of your improvement work will pay dividends in both the short and long run. Details of the project goals, ongoing tasks, baseline measurements, and objective results should be available to the team and other stakeholders in a central database that becomes the single version of the truth. Ideally, you'll have access to a continuous improvement platform built for this purpose.
Making assumptions is usually a bad idea, but doing so when leading a cross-functional team can be extremely damaging. It is far better to state the obvious than to end up hearing, "I thought they were going to do that."
It is the leader's responsibility to know exactly where this cross-functional effort is heading. You should be able to define the objective and subjective goals of the project, as well as how this work aligns with the strategic goals of the organization. In short, the leader must socialize both the "what" and the "why."
It is important for cross-functional leaders to remember that team members are likely participating in this project on top of their regular work. One way to establish empathy and ensure you are providing necessary support is to have one on one conversations with team members on a regular basis. Create an opportunity for each person to share their challenges and concerns.
It is normal and healthy for there to be conflicts among team members. When people are from different functional areas of an organization, they naturally have different priorities and norms. That's what makes this type of collaboration so powerful. The first step in conflict resolution is making sure that all parties feel heard. When conflict bubbles up, it should never be ignored. The leader must get all of the information necessary to make a decision, then communicate the plan and encourage everyone to move forward.
We've talked a lot about the need for planning, documentation, and strategy alignment, but in the real world, unexpected problems will arise. The leader must guide the team past any surprise bumps in the road. While you don't want to lose sight of why you are engaged in this work, it may be necessary to adjust expectations, timelines, and planned activities.
Cross-functional collaboration isn’t easy, but it is powerful. It’s an excellent opportunity to apply leadership, interpersonal, and problem-solving skills.