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What is cross-functional collaboration? (+ tips to improve it)

What is cross-functional collaboration - featured image

Great leaders and managers are always looking for ways to improve collaboration among team members to build more sustainable companies. And one kind of collaboration is getting more attention as the trend in remote work rises: cross-functional collaboration. 

What are cross-functional teams and how do they operate? We’ll answer all these questions in this guide and give you some tips and best practices, too.

What is cross-functional collaboration?

Cross-functional collaboration is when people from different departments work together on a common goal. This kind of collaboration can break down silos and promote teamwork across various departments and functions within an organization. 

All of this can happen as part of a specific and planned project — or organically and spontaneously. For example, when a copywriter reaches out to a member of the product team for clarifications on a certain feature, that’s an organic moment of cross-functional collaboration. 

Typically, most projects in a company are contained within a single team or department. However, sometimes it’s necessary to draw on expertise across different teams and departments to achieve a common goal. 

As an example:

  • The sales and marketing teams working together with the product team to improve the onboarding experience for new customers 

  • Customer support and engineering teams joining forces to fix bugs and boost customer success 

  • Manufacture and procurement managers collaborating to optimize factory inventory 

4 key benefits of cross-functional collaboration

The benefits of cross-functional collaboration go beyond just achieving a given task.  Let’s look at how these initiatives support company goals and a stronger culture. 

Benefits of cross-functional collaboration - graphic

✅ Promotes innovation and prevents siloed thinking

Relying on a single person or a group of people in a department to come up with all the ideas excludes other perspectives and often prevents teams from seeing the bigger picture. You can’t afford all those valuable different perspectives and ideas to be trapped in silos. 

If instead, you promote cross-team collaboration, you’ll bring all these different perspectives and ideas together. As an example, the product team has ideas for new features to add to your product. If they get input from the sales team, they can refine those ideas so that they appeal more to the target consumer.

The best cross-functional collaboration happens when people with different ideas and skill sets combine them to create better and more complete (and competitive) products or services.

✅ Improves problem-solving

When there’s a problem, it’s easy to obsess and fail to see the big picture. Often, the best solutions come from those who are slightly removed and can bring fresh ideas and perspectives. 

It’s not hard to see why. When people work on the same things, in the same way for a long time, they can become disengaged and stagnant. 

Deeper collaboration not only helps problem-solving and decision-making but increases employee engagement too. People who collaborate as part of their job and have access to digital collaboration tools are up to 17% happier with their jobs and company culture. 

✅ Streamlines work processes

In siloed teams, everyone does what they do best…and a bit of the stuff they don’t do as well. Imagine a marketing manager who’s also doing a bit of sales research and graphic design. 

Often, the fact that people have to do tasks to which they’re unsuited slows workflows and processes. 

Increasing your collaboration efforts means that you’ll start learning about (and leveraging) the unique skill sets and different areas of expertise in your company, which can lead to streamlined processes. 

This is especially important for cross-functional projects where tasks will often pass between different teams.

✅ Employees can flex different skills

On the flip side of the previous scenario, every organization and department has team members with hidden talents. Perhaps someone on your dev team does illustrations as a hobby. Or maybe you have a sales rep who majored in psychology in college and so could help customer interviewers. 

In siloed teams, secondary skill sets often remain hidden. When your project management team includes people collaborating cross-functionally, there’s a good chance that someone will pipe up and say, “Hey, I know how to do that!” or hit you with an out-of-the-box approach to solving an issue. 

4 main challenges of cross-functional collaboration

As we covered, cross-functional collaboration can help you achieve company goals and build high-performing teams. But it’s not a thing that happens without effort. And it’s not without its challenges. 

Main challenges of cross-functional collaboration - graphic

To take advantage of cross-functional collaboration, you’ll need to deal with these common challenges first.

❌ Effective communication

Good team communication is a key aspect of teamwork and any kind of collaborative endeavor, cross-functional or otherwise. The mistake that cross-functional team leaders often make, however, is that they treat the cross-functional team and project as any other team and project.

The rules and boundaries in a cross-functional team will be inherently less clear compared to traditional teams, so you need more communication than usual, not less. You’ll want to overcommunicate – send status updates and reminders more often, explain everything in more detail, and make sure that every meeting has a meeting agenda.

This will also help avoid misunderstandings, which can happen more frequently in cross-functional teams because people from different departments are used to different workflows, terminology, and processes.

❌ Fully remote working models

Let’s face it: collaboration and communication are hard, even at the best of times. And with more and more companies embracing remote work, it makes for an even more challenging situation, especially for cross-functional teams. 

There’s only one solution – embrace remote team collaboration fully. That means having virtual meetings, virtual team-building … well, virtual everything. 

To power that virtual workspace, you’ll need good collaboration apps, from project management tools to virtual meeting platforms.

Vowel is a meeting platform that comes with built-in transcription and recording, so it can turn your virtual meetings into searchable, shareable knowledge that’s easy to go back and reference.

Post-meeting view with transcript

You can also take collaborative notes and assign action items to any team member. Having a single source of truth for what happened in the meetings is a great way to keep all cross-functional team members aligned on the same objectives.

❌ Team trust building 

Trust is the basis of all collaborative efforts. Whether you’re helping your friend move or building a cross-functional team – it all falls apart if there’s a lack of trust.

Generally, teams have four stages of development:

  1. Forming

  2. Storming

  3. Norming

  4. Performing

We won’t get into the details of each, but the point is it takes time and effort to build a team. 

Even more so when you’re combining people from different departments who may not know each other well. 

A good idea is to start with small cross-functional projects before moving on to the big and important ones. Another way to build trust is to try icebreaker activities and games. 

Remote teams benefit from these efforts the most since there will always be a lot of people who never meet in real life and only communicate through email or project management software. 

❌ Time management

Another common challenge of cross-functional collaboration is time management. In a typical company, most people have busy schedules full of tasks to accomplish. If they have to participate in a cross-functional project, their performance in their primary areas of responsibility can suffer. 

There are two ways to address this. One is to free team members from some of the workload with their “home team” so they have more time to dedicate to a temporary cross-functional team or “task force.” You can also choose to form permanent cross-functional teams, where everyone involved carves out part of their time for projects on that team. A common example is an innovation team that consists of people from the research, engineering, marketing, and finance departments.

5 tips for effective cross-functional collaboration in your organization

To get the most out of cross-functional collaboration, there are certain rules that are good to follow: 

1. Assign a project owner (and don’t micromanage!)

Effective team collaboration isn’t possible if members feel like someone is constantly breathing down their necks. That’s not the way to build trust and foster open communication, innovation, and creativity.

On the other hand, you want to have team accountability, too. 

So how do you bridge this gap? Assign one project owner and then implement systems that can monitor performance (that’s your various appropriate metrics and KPIs) without inhibiting progress. 

Using project management tools like Asana or Microsoft Planner will let you track tasks without getting in the way. You can also choose to have daily or weekly check-in meetings to touch base with team members personally.

2. Lay the ground rules for meetings 

Chances are, as part of your cross-functional project, you’ll be holding a lot of recurring meetings

Without planning some ground rules, it’s very easy for these meetings to become an unproductive waste of time. Bad meetings reduce employee engagement and tire people out so they become less productive. 

So, before your project starts, think about these things:

  • How often will you be meeting?

  • Who will own the meeting agenda? 

  • How many people should attend?

  • What types of meetings do you want to have (e.g., check-in meetings, daily stand-ups, project kickoff meetings, etc.)?

Share meeting agendas in Vowel

No matter how many team meetings and how many types of them you’ll have, a good meeting agenda is a must. An agenda lets everyone know what to expect and how to prepare for the meeting. 

That means more productive meetings and fewer confused people glancing at their watches. 

With Vowel, you can use one of the many meeting agenda templates or write your own. When you’re ready, the agenda goes out alongside the meeting invitation. No more “can you please grant me access to the Google Doc?” messages! 

3. Build trust

As mentioned above, trust is one of the most common challenges of cross-functional teams. It makes sense because being on such a team means having to work with people whom you’ve never met before. It also means that people from different teams with different processes, cultures, and workflows have to come together and find a common language. 

That’s no small feat. 

To get the ball rolling, start with some small cross-functional tasks that get you some quick and easy wins. You can also get people motivated to collaborate cross-functionally by rewarding them. The combination of success and rewards for that success will go a long way toward promoting trust and collaboration.

4. Stay organized

Holding meetings, reviewing project progress, evaluating metrics … the list of tasks for cross-functional team leaders and managers goes on and on. 

Since a lot of this work will be meeting-based, it makes sense to have a meeting tool that has built-in features to help you stay organized. 

With Vowel, all recurring meetings are automatically grouped to streamline the regular conversations you’re having. And you can organize meetings in folders and grant access to people that need them. 

Vowel organize meetings folders GIF

Vowel also comes with shared collaborative notes so anyone can jot down important information. You can also assign action items in the notes or the meeting agenda. All users can see their assigned actioned items in their Vowel dashboard so they’ll always know what the next steps are. 

A screenshot that shows how Vowel groups all meeting action items

The built-in notes, automatic transcription, and recordings are shared with everyone, so each team member has access to all past meetings for context and clarity. 

5. Set clear roles

There’s one important similarity between cross-functional teams and traditional ones – things work best when everyone knows their exact role and responsibilities. 

At the beginning of your cross-functional project, the various team leaders need to take the initiative and clarify everyone’s role in the project as well as what the shared goal is and how it should be accomplished. 

In meetings, they should encourage open discussion to make team members feel invested in the success of the project.

The planning process of the cross-functional project can serve as a team-building exercise too because people will get to know each other through discussion and become more used to working together.

Improve cross-functional communication with the right tool

Cross-functional collaboration lets companies put different perspectives and skill sets together to achieve a common goal. There’s no collaboration without communication, so you’ll need a good meeting tool to complete your cross-functional projects. 

Vowel comes with collaborative tools built in: All meeting participants can take shared notes or bookmark the most important parts of a meeting. Plus, all meeting documents (notes, summaries, agendas, transcripts, and recordings) live together in the Vowel dashboard, and all collaborators can access and search through it easily.

Keyword search in Vowel

If you want to see what turning all your meetings into a searchable knowledge base looks like in practice, sign up now for free!