We all know what collaboration means — to work together with others on a shared project or goal. Most of us already collaborate daily, but often, it’s within our own departments and teams. But there’s so much more collaborative potential out there, and that’s where cross-functional collaboration comes in. This kind of cooperation brings different kinds of professionals together, even if they don’t have much in common at first glance.
Cross-functional collaboration is an exciting — and challenging — working style. With some creativity, patience, and an open mind, it can transform workplaces and help people accomplish amazing things.
What is cross-functional collaboration?
Cross-functional collaboration involves people from many different parts of an organization, rather than just one business function or team.
Cross-functional collaboration often happens naturally, especially at smaller organizations where the entire staff works closely together. But when companies reach a certain size, business functions can become siloed or divided, with little awareness of what others are doing and how everyone contributes to company goals.
Cross-functional collaboration helps companies break down those barriers. It puts focus back on the broad outcomes they want to achieve, rather than getting bogged down in each department’s individual goals.
By bringing together diverse viewpoints and disciplines, cross-functional collaboration leads to innovation, bold thinking, and creative problem-solving.
Cross-functional collaboration: an example
Let’s start by imagining some typical business goals. At a software company, let’s say the sales team is striving to close more deals, the marketing team wants to grow the brand’s social presence, and the product developers want to fix some bugs and add fun new features.
Those are great goals. But the overall outcome they’re working towards is the same: delivering a better experience that customers love.
A cross-functional approach could have people from these teams working together to conceptualize a new, better product that meets customer needs.
The company’s leadership could set up collaboration sessions with people from product, sales, marketing, and even customer service. Together, they could share what they’ve learned about their customers, and how a new product could better serve them. Then, designers could weigh in on the feasibility of those ideas, and check back regularly as they start putting them into practice.
Of course, this could happen organically. For example, a product designer might ask someone in sales what features people often ask for, to get some ideas. But it could also be a formal, planned initiative.
Benefits of cross-functional collaboration
Innovation and creativity
No one gets inspiration from doing the same old thing, day in and day out.
Cross-functional collaboration brings workers into contact with fresh ideas, new perspectives, and entirely different disciplines. That can lead to unexpected connections and creative ideas.
Reduce siloing and work more efficiently
Cross-functional collaboration promotes open, frequent communication. That breaks down silos and communication barriers that obstruct work and cause inefficiency.
People get a deeper understanding of the business as a whole, and where their own work fits within it. It also gives everyone access to a broader range of knowledge and experience when they need help coming up with solutions.
Boost employee engagement
Because they’re exposed to new challenges and ideas, people tend to find cross-functional work more rewarding and interesting. Cross-functional collaboration also offers a strong sense of team belonging and connection to a larger mission — both important drivers of employee engagement!
Challenges of cross-functional collaboration and how to beat them
Cross-functional collaboration can be an amazing thing, but it’s also technically challenging. You’re bringing together people from many different backgrounds, and expecting them to work as one team!
Here are some common pitfalls to watch out for when trying cross-functional collaboration, and how you can best avoid them.
Confusion and miscommunication
Great cross-functional collaboration is all about clarity, and that starts with communication.
You’ll be working with people from completely different professions and disciplines. They may not understand technical terms that seem obvious to you, or they may suggest things that you can see aren’t feasible.
Be patient and kind with everyone on your cross-functional team. Avoid using niche language or jargon, and try to provide more background and context than you think is necessary.
Building trust and psychological safety
Cross-functional teams should build comfort, trust, and rapport early. Trying to create strong bonds is difficult enough on just one team, let alone a group of colleagues who may never have met or worked together before.
Don’t rush things and give people plenty of time to get to know each other — that’s the only way to get truly innovative ideas from your cross-functional initiative.
Scope creep is common enough on typical projects. It can be even more of a problem in cross-functional settings, because it’s more difficult for teams to estimate time and resource commitments when they’re working on projects they’re not familiar with.
Get ahead of scope creep by setting super clear goals, both for the project as a whole and for everyone working on it. Make sure everyone knows what they’re getting into, and doesn’t commit to more than they can realistically accomplish.
Invite participants to consult other experts on the team if they’re not sure what will be required. For example, if the marketing team wants to help out with product design, ask the designers exactly how much input they’ll need. Will they need to check in daily, weekly, or just once in a while?
Tools for cross-functional collaboration
There’s no denying that cross-functional collaboration is complex and challenging. But with a little technology magic, you can make it a whole lot easier!
Most of these digital tools are useful to any collaborative team. But cross-functional teams should find them even more valuable as they strive to do their best work.
- Project management tools: Stay organized with platforms like Asana, Basecamp, and Clickup.
- Brainstorming and whiteboarding: Get creative with tools like Miro and Mural.
- Communication: Stay connected with Slack, and try creating a specific channel for cross-functional chat.
- Office suite: Make sure everyone’s using the same virtual work environment, like Microsoft Teams or Google Workspace. Collaboration will be much more difficult if you’re split between systems.
Mix it up and get inspired!
If you’re about to try cross-functional collaboration, get ready to discover new ideas, new thoughts, and discover a whole new side of yourself professionally.
In the workplace or out of it, challenging ourselves and stretching our limits is how we grow. That’s what makes cross-functional collaboration so fresh, exciting, and just plain fun!