3 best practices for cross-functional team collaboration

cross functional team

Effective cross-functional team collaboration can make or break a project, or even a company. Research shows that organizations need the expertise provided by different functional units to exchange information, work toward a common goal, generate new ideas, solve problems, and accomplish necessary tasks. One study looked at how cross-functional collaboration impacted an organization’s ability to commercialize new technology. It found that teams with more effective cross-functional collaboration:

  • Used their know-how more effectively
  • Developed new products more quickly
  • Released more products
  • Created products that were more future-oriented

However, the specialization that gives certain functions their edge can make sharing knowledge and establishing norms more difficult. For example, many departments use jargon to communicate with each other. Also, many teams lack deep ties to other teams. Without this pre-existing common ground, it can be difficult for cross-functional working groups to exchange, interpret, and attribute vital information effectively.

Here are three cross-functional teams best practices that can help bridge some of the divides between departments to unlock the full potential of cross-functional collaboration in your organization.

1. Focus on building relationships

Organizations with strong, healthy relationships across functions are better able to share resources, information, knowledge, and capabilities. For instance, teams that have close ties with other teams often have a more accurate, holistic view of the entire organization which often leads to new product or feature ideas. Strong relationships help move information from individuals to organizational collective knowledge. This, in turn, can help teams identify new market opportunities. Healthy relationships also foster faster conflict resolution, brainstorming, and problem-solving.

To help create bonds between a new group of people, we recommend encouraging workers to recognize each other’s accomplishments. A quick shoutout on Slack or a thank-you email can make a big difference. Collaboration tools like Disco make it easy for even remote workers to give colleagues praise and recognition for their contributions and accomplishments within Slack.

Another way to form relationships is through virtual coffee breaks that cross functional areas. Not only do they promote team bonding, but they also offer a nice mental break so workers can recharge and ultimately increase their productivity. Encouraging workers to take time for virtual coffee breaks helps promote team members’ “social and emotional health and encourages the team’s social cohesiveness,” Leadership advisor Niamh O’Keeffe told Forbes. “Leaders need to encourage informal bonding time and recognize that a lot of idea sharing, innovation and problem-solving takes place during informal time.”

At Clockwise, we use Donut to pair employees randomly for “coffee chats.” It’s especially handy for remote teams where not everyone gets a chance to interact on a regular basis.

2. Encourage collaborative leadership

The study mentioned above calls out collaborative leadership as a “key factor in developing a successful cross-functional team for new product development” and “has a significant and positive impact on performance.” Even among teams with strong cross-functional relationships, conflicts of interest, misalignment on goals and objectives, and communication breakdowns can and will arise. Collaborative leadership is ultimately responsible for creating a working environment that features open communication and information-sharing, full participation, and effective conflict resolution.

Effective leadership:

  • Keeps motivation and morale high
  • Develops a vision and keeps it in focus
  • Attends to relationships
  • Maintains open and collaborative communications and problem-solving mechanisms
  • Structure the organization to deliver what is promised
  • Retains a continuous-learning mindset

To grow your own leadership skills, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Why does my team exist, and why does what we work on matter?
  • Which of my team’s current specific projects is the most important and why?
  • Which design decisions have we made and how did we come to those decisions?
  • What are our key technology choices and what’s the thinking behind them?
  • How healthy is our team? How high-quality and high-impact is our work?
  • How well can the team operate without me?
  • How can I help my teammates grow, across all experience levels and scenarios?
  • Am I spending time with my teams in the right way?

3. Cultivate healthy communication and information sharing norms

The researchers behind Accelerate: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations found that high-performing teams have higher revenues, develop and deploy software faster, experience shorter cycle times, enjoy lower less downtime, etc. One major difference between high- and low-performing teams is the extent to which they have what’s called a “generative culture.”

In A typology of organisational cultures, Sociologist Ron Westrum found that organizational cultures can be organized into three types: pathological, bureaucratic, and generative. He also found that how new information moves through an organization is extremely important for positive outcomes.

Cultures that incorporate and respond to new information effectively measurably outperformed organizations that couldn't.

Pathological cultures punish people who present new, inconvenient information. Bureaucratic cultures ignore information that might disrupt existing processes and hierarchies. In a generative culture, workers and leaders encourage and accept new ideas.

In generative cultures, leaders prioritize performance over politics. In these cultures, leaders reward workers for bringing forward new, important information. They have high trust and encourage risk-taking. When things go wrong, leaders meet failure with curiosity instead of looking for someone to blame. As a result, workers feel confident taking risks and sharing information.

Creating productive cross-functional development teams

Organizations with more effective cross-functional team collaboration measurably outperform organizations with less. Three best practices can help your organization improve your cross-functional collaboration:

1. Build strong relationships between departments well in advance of collaborating on a project

2. Develop leadership that can help avoid and ameliorate some of the challenges inherent to cross-functional collaboration

3. Create communication norms that foster collaboration and productivity throughout the organization

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