One day early in my career, I woke up to an email from my boss with the subject line marked: “URGENT: Please Read.” My heart and brain started racing. When I opened the email, I found out that no, I wasn’t fired (the first thing my mind had jumped to, naturally) but there was an emergency with one of our clients, and I would need to join a meeting later that day with 15 other people from various teams to find a resolution.
To back up for a moment: We were working with the client to implement a technology system that would help them onboard new employees across the globe. The company was growing rapidly, and it was important for them to have a solution in place to support this growth. We were falling behind and at serious risk of missing the launch date, which could severely impact their business—and ours. After that emergency meeting, the 16 of us worked together every day until the situation was resolved.
It was a challenging but eye-opening experience for me, as I was forced to quickly meet people from different parts of the company, work together to identify the problem, and then take on and execute specific tasks that contributed to an overarching goal. After 22 hectic days, the system went live right on time. The company had gained a much more efficient and scalable solution for onboarding new employees and we’d kept an important client happy.
While I didn’t know it then, I’d been tasked with cross-functional collaboration—which would become a critical component of roles I’d hold in the years to come. And in today’s world of work, chances are cross-functional collaboration is a critical component of your job, too. In order to succeed in your career, you’ll need to know what it is and how to do it well.
Wait, what is cross-functional collaboration?
Cross-functional collaboration happens when employees from different departments or teams—who have different roles, or functions—work together to solve a problem, complete a project, or make progress toward an objective. During this process, each department or team may bring its own unique perspectives and priorities and have distinct responsibilities, but the collaboration is meant to drive toward a shared goal or outcome.
This can be a short-term effort (for a specific project) or a long-term or ongoing way of working. For example, project manager roles focus specifically on overseeing cross-functional efforts to ensure that colleagues within an organization are working effectively toward shared goals. And folks in product marketing, product management, and other positions typically dedicate a large percentage of their time to working cross-functionally, such as on launching a new product, feature, or service or designing and executing a new marketing campaign.
Take, for instance, a software company launching a new product that it wants to sell to its customers. In order to make it happen, you need the product development team to take on ideation and design, the engineering team to build and test the software, the finance team to take care of forecasting and product pricing, the marketing team to figure out how to get the customers to buy the product, and more. When representatives from various teams pool their diverse perspectives, insights, and expertise, they can achieve their shared goal—in this case, getting the best possible new product developed and into the hands of their customer.
In our interconnected business world, we need diverse skill sets to make projects like these successful, which requires the combined efforts of various teams. In fact, cross-functional collaboration has been on the rise in the workplace, increasing at least 50% over the last decade and taking up the majority of employees’ time.
What are the benefits of cross-functional collaboration?
At this point, you might be thinking to yourself, “Sounds tiring,” and maybe even, “Why should I care?” Here are a few reasons it’s worth investing time in building your cross-functional collaboration skills:
You can get things done faster and better.
When done right, cross-functional collaboration can help colleagues achieve a joint goal faster, reduce redundant or extra work, and get better results.
For example, if you work in the IT department at your company and are tasked with building and implementing a new system to manage employee expenses, you might be able to figure out a way to accomplish that alone or just with your own team. But it would take a significant amount of time, and you might lack certain skills and knowledge to get it done efficiently (or at all).
However, if you worked collaboratively with a cross-functional team that included someone from the procurement department who approves expenses, a salesperson who’d be using the new system every day, and the compliance team that understands the company expense policies, you could find ways to get it done faster and better than if you kept trying to solve this on your own.
You can generate more innovative ideas.
Bringing together people with diverse roles and backgrounds improves creativity and innovation. In a study conducted using a sample of 7,600 London-based firms, researchers found that “companies with diverse management were more likely to introduce new product innovations than are those with homogeneous ‘top teams.’”
When you have a group of people sharing ideas and opinions from different perspectives, it allows you to see problems from new angles, generate novel and creative ideas, and ultimately find better solutions. In my experience as a marketer, hearing how someone in product management, finance, or customer support approached building a product expanded my own view of what was possible and encouraged me to think differently.
You can learn to think more strategically.
Collaborating cross-functionally requires you to understand not only what you’re working on, but how it fits into the bigger picture of your organization’s mission and goals. Instead of just thinking in your own specific lane, you have to think about other teams and functions and how everything comes together to help the business thrive. This improves your ability to understand the organization from a strategic lens, which tends to make you more effective in your job and more successful in your career.
You can build relationships and accelerate your career.
A cross-functional project is often an opportunity for you to grow and advance your career. Your knowledge, skills, and talents could be very valuable to another team (and vice versa, of course)! And using your unique strengths in the context of a cross-functional project allows you not only to make a significant contribution, but also to increase your visibility and build relationships and clout with people inside and outside of your organization.
For example, when I was a product marketer, I was well-versed in training salespeople on all of our product offerings. So when I heard about a cross-functional collaboration opportunity being spearheaded by the sales team to improve the new salesperson onboarding and training, I immediately raised my hand. Joining the project—which spanned sales, customer success, product management, and product marketing—helped me gain credibility and influence with senior leaders of other teams, which was helpful to my career growth and personal brand.
What are common challenges of cross-functional collaboration?
While there are many benefits to cross-functional collaboration, there are certainly challenges, too, including:
- Conflicting and competing priorities: While a group of employees collaborating cross-functionally may have a shared goal, they inevitably also have other projects and priorities they’re responsible for completing. It can be easy for tasks to get delayed (or dropped), which causes projects to stall.
- Bungled communication: Making sure you share and get the right information can be difficult and slow collaboration down. I’ve seen two people working on the same exact task, team members feeling slighted because they weren’t involved in or informed about a decision, and frustration and distrust brewing within a team due to a lack of transparency.
- Lack of alignment: If you can’t come together around a shared goal, cross-functional collaboration can be an uphill battle. But aligning on a goal is easier said than done, either because you’re in a rush to get started and it never gets clearly defined, or because there are so many different personalities and opinions that it’s tough to get people to agree.
- Meeting overload: Cross-functional projects often rely on meetings to keep things moving on schedule and to solve problems that arise as you go. Over time, meetings become the default, and before you know it, you have no time in your calendar to actually get work done.
- Ownership and accountability gaps: Having lots of people involved can be very valuable. But it can also cause issues around ownership and accountability. As a student, did you ever work on a group project where everyone assumed someone else would pick up the slack? Well the same thing can happen at your job. I once worked on a cross-functional project with representatives from 26 different teams. Because there were so many people and teams involved, when an issue came up, there was often an assumption that someone else would take care of it, and it never got addressed (which, let me tell you, is a recipe for bigger problems down the line).
6 tips for better cross-functional collaboration
As someone who’s worked on cross-functional teams almost every day for the last 10 years, I’ve learned some lessons about how to work more effectively with others. Here are six tips you and your cross-functional team can use to collaborate successfully:
1. Always define and align around a clear outcome.
For any project, and especially a cross-functional project, it’s important that you know your objective and agree on a timeline for achieving it. When each individual employee has their own priorities and projects, having clarity around timelines and goals helps them plan appropriately.
I used to lead numerous product launches, which were huge cross-functional endeavors. At the beginning of each process, I would work with our entire cross-functional team to develop a short PowerPoint presentation that articulated the product launch objective, timeline, and key measures. Each team contributed to this deck, and we would review it throughout the course of the project to ensure that we all were on the same page about where things stood and felt confident about how we were working toward that shared outcome.
2. Set communication, meeting, and reporting norms.
During a cross-functional project, there are often lots of tasks and activities going on at once. It can be hard to keep track of what’s happening, which means developing norms around communication, meetings, and reporting is critical—so that the right people can easily find the information they need to work effectively. Plus, it helps ensure that everyone can contribute meaningfully without feeling overwhelmed.
For example, prior to kicking off any cross-functional project, I would work with the rest of the team to determine some basic standards and best practices around:
- How often we’d meet and what the right format/venue would be
- What would be the best way to communicate status updates with people
- What collaboration tools (e.g., Slack, email, project management software, etc.) were best for what types of reasons
- How to ask for help and raise issues or challenges
Inevitably, each project will vary depending on the people involved and your shared goal, but getting clarity around these norms up front helps everyone stay aligned, productive, and happy.
3. Know how your role fits into the big picture.
Cross-functional collaboration requires you to contribute individually while thinking holistically. It can be easy to lose sight of what you’re working toward. But it’s important to know not just what’s on your to-do list, but why it’s there and how it’s serving a bigger goal.
One way to do this is through a collaboration checklist you can review regularly that includes questions like:
- How does my task and role help the group achieve the goal?
- What’s the most important thing I need to do this week to work toward the shared goal?
- Who are the other people involved in this task?
4. Understand the roles, responsibilities, and goals of teammates you’re working with.
Knowing your own role and responsibilities and how they connect back to the end goal is important, but go a step further to understand the roles, responsibilities, and key metrics for the other teams and individuals you’re working with. Being able to see others’ perspectives, contributions, and metrics provides clarity into who does what, who to turn to or rely on when you need help, and how each person involved contributes to the overall success of the project.
Beyond making the project at hand easier, this will also help you build stronger relationships with your colleagues. Plus, in any collaboration, there will inevitably be differences of opinion and difficult conversations. When you make an effort to understand your coworkers’ roles and perspectives, you develop empathy and trust, which in turn will help you work together more effectively.
5. Get to know working styles (including your own!)
One tool I always use when working with a cross-functional team is a user manual—a document you can create and share with your teammates that outlines your own communication preferences as well as any other pertinent information that others would benefit from knowing when working with you. If every member of a cross-functional team takes some time to fill this out and you all collectively talk about your preferences and styles prior to starting, you can build up trust and awareness—including of yourself—which can lead to better collaboration and communication throughout the project.
6. Make time to do a retrospective and reflect on what you learned.
Successfully completing a cross-functional project is a time to celebrate a job well done. But don’t stop there! At the end of a project, bring your team together to reflect on what went well, what didn’t go as well, and what you can learn from it all. These kinds of sessions are great opportunities to develop lessons that future teams can use and also build trust and credibility with your peers.