Cross-Functional Collaboration: Turning Challenges into Opportunities

Published on
April 22, 2024
Wendy Hanson
Co-founder and COO
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"Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success." — Henry Ford
What is Cross-Functional Collaboration?

In today's ever-changing and highly dynamic business landscape, collaboration has become a vital component for success. To achieve any goal requires commitment and focus. However, that can prove to be challenging when working across teams or departments. Traditional organizational configurations often consist of a hierarchical structure, with a top-down approach to management and each department tackling a specific area. This approach can result in unanticipated inefficiencies and a silo approach to conducting business. As organizations strive to innovate, adapt, and stay competitive, the traditional siloed approach to teamwork is proving increasingly obsolete. Rather, the drive nowadays is to empower cross-functional teams and support collaboration of members from diverse departments to come together in order to tackle complex problems as well as drive collective success.

For example, to launch a new product or service multiple departments of a company will most likely collaborate. In order, to have a successful launch, the marketing team will work with the sales team to see how sales are performing and how advertising campaigns may shift. Additionally, the customer service team will also share consumer feedback with the development team for the best version of product or service to be presented to the market

Teams working in this capacity are engaged in "cross-functional collaboration," or interdepartmental collaboration. This means a company’s different operational areas are coming together to solve problems, create value-driven solutions and meet deadlines. Cross-functional team collaboration is an excellent method in bringing together diverse perspectives and skill sets in a responsible decision-making process as well as fostering deeper bonds of connection.

Team members who might never have the opportunity to meet are now able to work together in a consultative approach and unlock opportunities for innovation. This approach seeks participation and consensus in making decisions and unity in their execution. Drawing on the collective intelligence of those involved inspires better decisions and more effective implementation. 

However, cross-functional collaboration only works with the right strategies and guidance to support it. First, let’s take a look at some of the benefits as well as challenges.

Benefits of Cross-functional Collaboration
  • Promotes the goals of the organization
  • Increases the efficiency of project completion
  • Increases innovation of both processes and products
  • Increases employee engagement
  • Improved alignment across departments
  • Vibrant company culture
  • Stronger leadership opportunities
Challenges of Managing Cross-functional Collaboration

Creating an effective cross-functional team and implementing changes does not come without its hurdles. Some common challenges include:

  • Communication breakdowns: Different departmental language and communication styles can lead to misunderstandings.
  • Clashing priorities: Aligning individual departmental goals with the overall project objective can be tricky.
  • Lack of trust and rapport: Building trust and rapport between team members from different backgrounds takes time and effort.
  • Resistance to change: Breaking down siloed structures can meet with resistance from those accustomed to working in isolation.
Strategies For Building Effective Cross-Functional Teams

Creating an impactful and effective cross-functional team takes more than just randomly tapping a few individuals from each function in the company. Laying the right groundwork is vital and it requires establishing clear leadership in assigning individual roles as well as the responsibilities to develop the ways to thoroughly test the end result. Industry leaders from the Forbes Technology Council shared a few of their strategies for building an effective cross-functional team:

  • Ensure Diversity Within the Team: Diversity is a cornerstone of cross-functional teams, but this isn’t confined to diversity of expertise. The more diverse the group is, the more effective and productive it will be at meeting its goals. This means diversity of age, status, background, viewpoint, gender, race, and tenure with the organization.
  • Include Lead Players From Both R&D And Go-To-Market: As a part of planning, executing, and launching a product, an effective cross-functional team needs to include lead players from both R&D and go-to-market who are in lockstep with each other all the way from inception, build and release to marketing and launch.
  • Look For The Right Mix Of Skills: Cross-functional teams need the right mix of Agile, technical, and communications skills so they can interact with the business and proactively ensure that solutions meet business goals.
  • Strive For A Mix Of Diverse And Complementary Views: Having the right mix of diverse and complementary views is key to team-building. A strategy I use when selecting team members is to focus on bringing in the best subject matter experts—those who complement each other, regardless of their seniority or title.
  • Ensure Strong Management Oversight: Unlike focused teams, where the same type of work is split up among the members, cross-functional teams generate an enormous amount of information exchange and thus heavily rely on communication and collaboration.
  • Make Sure Leaders Understand What Each Team Needs: Leaders should have a holistic understanding of what each team needs to ensure their objectives are met.
  • Take A Design-Thinking Approach: Effective cross-functional teams are laser-focused on clear objectives. Taking a design-thinking approach helps you to first identify what the objective should be and what roles are needed to achieve it. Once the right team members are in the right “seats,” establishing objectives and key results is critical to align everyone on a roadmap, define the metrics that matter and track progress toward the goal.
  • Start With A Small Task The Group Can Work On Together: Communication is the most important factor in team building. That, however, can be tough to develop in cross-functional teams, given the team members’ different specializations. At project inception, give the team a small task that they can work on as a group. Early success can build the communication bonds that will hold the team together, even as members break off to focus on their specializations.
  • Ensure Teams Are Open And Accountable To Each Other: Transparency in communication, team trust, and accountability are key. Teams have to be open with each other about challenges, barriers, and successes to earn trust across groups. Individual teams must also keep each other accountable to achieve their deliverables, fulfill timelines, and ensure projects run smoothly.
  • Choose New Team Representatives For Each Project: Avoid getting into a pattern of using the same cross-functional representatives from each department for every project. Involving the same minds decreases intellectual diversity. To truly drive innovation, aim for new ideas from a variety of people.
Learning About Organic Collaboration in Practice

As companies of all sizes and dimensions master cross-functional collaboration, they can then also start to think about inter-organizational collaboration initiatives. One company that has successfully tackled both areas is SecondMuse

The example of SecondMuse illustrates a conscious, purposeful, and reflective effort to apply the principles of organic collaboration within a social entrepreneurship framework. SecondMuse was formed in 2008 out of the Harmony Equity Group. From the outset, it has sought to redefine the modern corporation as an entity that co-creates shared prosperity and contributes to an ever-advancing civilization. Their initial contribution to this overarching goal is an effort to demonstrate how organic collaboration between diverse private-sector and public-sector partners can address global challenges in impactful ways while advancing the mission of corporations, civil society organizations, and governments.

For instance, one of SecondMuse's initiatives was LAUNCH, which brought NASA, USAID, the US State Department, and Nike into a collaborative partnership focused on incubating environmental sustainability initiatives. It brought together dozens of leading innovators, scientists, entrepreneurs, activists, and government officials in an unconventional, multidisciplinary, and emergent collaborative process that assisted with the launching of some of the world's most impressive water-sustainability innovations. 

SecondMuse is involved in numerous other initiatives focused on intra-organizational or inter-organizational collaborative processes that address significant social or environmental problems. The company is growing at a rapid pace due to the consistent success of its initiatives. But none of these initiatives were born simply from perceived market opportunities that aligned the generation of revenue with the creation of social good. Rather, they were born from a conceptual framework that offers a radical reconception of a corporation based on a holistic model of human nature, a corresponding conception of social and economic relations, and a commitment to processes of organic collaboration motivated by a desire to contribute to the betterment of the entire social body. 

Transforming Challenges into Triumphs

By fostering collaboration and effectively navigating common roadblocks, cross-functional team leads can turn challenges into catalysts for growth. The synergy created through diverse perspectives and skill sets can lead to groundbreaking solutions, innovative ideas, and a more engaged and productive workforce. So break down the silos, embrace collaboration, and watch your teams soar to new heights! And, as a leader, take another even more expansive step outside of the box, beyond the lens of just your own company’s goals by exploring collaborative, impact-driven initiatives with other organizations that will not only benefit your team but also the wider global community. 

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