Collaboration is popping up everywhere on today’s business teams.

Sometimes, managers can think it's the solution to every business problem: “What we need here is more team collaboration!”

But other times, collaboration (or the lack of it) becomes the scapegoat for project failure or dysfunction: “How could I possibly succeed when that department doesn’t collaborate?"

Collaboration can transform a company from a disconnected set of information silos to a streamlined, cohesive entity that achieves synergy in all sorts of places — when it works well.

One form of project collaboration that’s seeing more and more use is cross-functional collaboration. In this post, we’ll discuss:

  • How the cross-functional collaborative model is defined and how it works

  • The benefits of implementing cross-functional collaboration

  • Some common challenges to implementing successful cross-functional collaboration

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What is cross-functional collaboration?

Cross-functional collaboration is the process of running a project that spans various teams and functions within an organization. It draws on expertise across different departments and points all team members toward a common goal. 

It’s a method for reducing siloing and increasing collaboration within an organization. Implemented well, cross-functional collaboration can create greater camaraderie, a more enjoyable work environment, and what many businesses consider the holy grail: synergy.

Here’s an example. Take a blog post like the one you’re reading right now. Typically a task or project like this gets completed via a single division, team, or pipeline. No one outside the marketing department (and perhaps its associated vendors) would typically get involved — and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But say an organization needs a blog post on a highly technical topic, or the executive leadership taps its marketing team to build a wide-ranging flagship document. Marketing doesn’t have everything it needs internally to succeed, so a cross-functional team is born. 

Personnel from different teams come together: Someone from the dev team gets pulled in as a subject matter expert, as do others from various relevant departments, and a customized project management plan is established. Instead of constantly bugging people outside the project for their expertise, project leaders actually assign cross-departmental resources to a project — and allocate some of those resources’ time accordingly. 

Cross-functional collaboration can happen both organically and by design. A designer struggling to understand the audience for a particular asset might reach out to someone in another department (like sales) for help, creating an instant, organic moment of cross-functional collaboration. Or an entire special project could be greenlit, built from the start with cross-functional collaboration in mind.

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Unique benefits of cross-functional collaboration

Cross-functional collaboration is popular because it helps to solve quite a few persistent business problems. If these goals have been elusive, an effective cross-functional collaboration approach could be the solution.

Enhances team members’ engagement

When team members work their single-stream tasks repeatedly for weeks, months, and years on end, it’s easy for them to feel stagnant and disengaged. They work with the same small group of people with little to no variation, which isn’t helpful. We’ve seen this trend worsening for some due to the distance and isolation that can occur with remote work.

One of the simplest ways to boost employee engagement is to create deeper collaboration. When you disrupt the status quo in this way, now someone new relies on that disengaged employee’s work, and new conversations occur. As employees work together toward shared goals (especially team members who haven’t previously had a reason to interact), engagement improves.

Just how powerful is collaboration on engagement? Consider these impressive statistics:

  • One survey finds that people who collaborate and have access to digital collaboration tools are as much as 17% happier with work and work culture than those who don’t.

  • In a global study of 19,000 workers and their engagement in the workplace, the ADP Research Institute finds that the employees who "felt like members of a team" were over 200% more likely to be and stay engaged in their workplace.

Creates a more streamlined work process

Once cross-functional collaboration becomes the new way of doing business, most teams discover that it leads to more streamlined processes. By leveraging each individual's (and department's) unique strengths, cross-functional teams can accomplish more than siloed ones. This is because, in siloed teams, everyone does what they do best — plus a little bit of what they aren’t as good at. For example, there’s always a little sales in marketing, and a little editing, and a little research — you get the idea.

When you open up those silos, you set up your teams for streamlined workflows. Just be aware that this won’t happen instantly. We’ll discuss this more in the challenges section below, but know that you should expect some short-term disruption as teams calibrate to this new way of working.

Promotes a more creative and innovative work environment

When your teams cross-collaborate, more great ideas have the chance to surface. Your marketing and sales teams can’t build products or apps or whatever you make, but they may have great ideas for new features. Similarly, your product development folks have no business launching marketing campaigns, but they may know the customer pain points better than anyone.

Cross-functional teams encourage ideas from all corners, leading to greater creativity and innovation. However, be aware that this requires some degree of management. Not every idea is a good one, and someone ultimately has to make the call about what goes in and what gets cut. But opening up the floor for more ideas is generally a net gain.

Combines diverse skill sets and experience

Throughout your organization, you have people with hidden skills and talents. It could be a marketer with a STEM minor. It could be a sales rep with a hobbyist background in creative arts. It could be a veteran project manager with experience in a client’s field.

When organizations silo their people, these ancillary skills and talents stay hidden and rarely help the business. But organizations that prioritize collaboration and openness create environments that welcome different perspectives. In environments like these, people are much more likely to speak up and say, “You know, I could help with that!” or “Here’s an out-of-the-box idea.”

Project management platform Teamwork supports cross-functional collaboration in numerous ways, including through our Teams function. Teams lets you create ad hoc and cross-functional teams within Teamwork to save time on admin work and gain a high-level view of employee workload and project accountability.

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Challenges of cross-functional collaboration

Cross-functional collaboration does solve many business challenges, but doing it well never happens automatically. Introducing cross-functional collaboration opens the door for new challenges, like a lack of accountability and ownership clarity.

Here are three common challenges that show up in cross-functional settings — and solutions for each one.

Lack of trust between team members

Building trust as a team is challenging, and if you’re familiar with the four stages of a team (forming, storming, norming, and performing), you know that it takes time for a team to hit its stride. A big part of this comes down to trust.

And if trust between team members is a challenge in traditional, siloed approaches, it can be much worse in cross-functional teams. People in departments that haven’t historically gotten along are now supposed to work hand in hand and trust each other. That can be a big ask.

Solution: Start with small projects and icebreakers

Building trust on any team takes time, so start with small cross-functional projects before launching into big ones. And whenever you pull together a new team, don’t underestimate the value of an icebreaker.

Especially in an increasingly remote, hybrid, and work-from-home world, coworkers don’t always know each other very well. A silly two- or five-minute game can go a long way toward building camaraderie, and so does seeing small wins on small projects.

Misunderstandings and less frequent communication

Some organizations launch cross-functional teams exactly how they launch other teams. Others don’t follow much of a protocol or workflow at all, leading to less frequent communication than even a typical or traditional team would have.

Both of these are a mistake, though: The rules and boundaries of a cross-functional team are inherently less clear, and misunderstandings are commonplace. When project leaders communicate even less frequently, they add to the confusion.

Solution: Over-communicate and utilize meeting agendas

Especially when cross-functional projects and thinking are new to a team or organization, misunderstandings are common. What may seem obvious to project leads isn’t always obvious to team members. They’re used to working in very specific, clearly defined ways, and you’re asking them to do something different.

The answer here is over-communication. If the message isn’t getting through, send it more times than you think you should need to. Also, use specific, detailed meeting agendas — which attendees receive before the meeting starts — so that everyone is on the same page when they join in.

Another solution is using world-class project planning software like Teamwork, which gives you the flexibility to plan and schedule cross-functionally with fewer misunderstandings. Project managers and leads can message the entire cross-functional team quickly and easily, reaching everyone with meeting agendas, project updates, and more.

Check out Teamwork’s capabilities as project planning software now.

Remote collaboration can be difficult

Last, remote collaboration can, in some ways, be more difficult than the in-person work your team members are used to. Lightweight communication and task planning tools like Slack and Asana can help in simple environments, but they just aren’t enough for high-performing teams in complex workflows — especially when bringing different areas of the company together into a cross-functioning team.

Solution: Use a project collaboration tool

When leading remote teams, it’s even more vital to keep everyone focused on the right short-term initiatives and long-term company goals. With Teamwork as your project collaboration tool, you’ll improve decision-making, problem-solving, and more as the entire team can see the bigger picture — and the steady impact of their collaboration efforts.

See what Teamwork’s project collaboration tools can do.

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Enhance your organization’s cross-functional collaboration with Teamwork

Cross-functional collaboration can transform how your teams and team leaders think about work. It can lead to better project outcomes, better staff unity, and more. But to make the transition effectively, you need the right collaboration platform.

Teamwork is a full suite of project management tools, including a robust project collaboration tool that helps teams like yours organize, plan, track, and succeed with projects of all types — including cross-functional teams and projects.

Ready to see what Teamwork can do for you? Check out our project collaboration tools today!