3 examples of cross-functional collaboration that fueled innovation

Although cross-functional collaboration has become a buzzword in recent years, it’s not a novel concept. Working across different teams has been around for decades, dating back to the 1950s

Today, it’s a standard approach in most workplaces. According to Deloitte, 83% of digitally maturing companies report that they use cross-functional teams. 

But why has cross-functional collaboration become so popular? One word: innovation. As it turns out, limiting employees to their direct teams can also limit the entire organization’s ability to innovate. 

How cross-functional collaboration fuels innovation

There’s a lot involved in fostering an innovative environment, from setting a clear vision to establishing psychological safety. Cross-functional collaboration is one crucial and not-so-secret ingredient for thinking outside the box — as proven by the following benefits.

1. Diverse experiences and perspectives

Good ideas can come from anywhere. Cross-functional teams pull together people of all different backgrounds, experiences, and opinions. That varied and well-rounded perspective helps teams think beyond their immediate viewpoints and come up with more inventive suggestions and ideas. Research backs this up, as diverse teams have continuously proven to be more innovative

2. Varied skill sets

Innovation requires a mix of soft skills like problem-solving, creativity, and critical thinking. But you need a blend of technical skills too. Cross-functional teams bring people with different expertise together. Team members can lean on each other’s strengths and knowledge to deliver a better result. 

3. Better visibility

To truly innovate, people need a broader context — they need to be able to see beyond their individual contributions. That’s hard to accomplish, particularly when leaders say organizational silos are one of their top challenges.

When people work cross-functionally, they build a better understanding of how their work fits into the whole picture. That helps them come up with more relevant ideas and solutions. 

4. Adaptability

Sometimes innovation is sparked by a good idea. Other times, it’s triggered by a pressing need or an urgent problem. “Crises present us with unique conditions that allow innovators to think and move more freely to create rapid, impactful change,” explains an article for Harvard Business Publishing.

And as it turns out, cross-functional teams are in a better position to respond to those changes. According to research from Asana, 79% of workers at collaborative organizations feel well-prepared to adapt to emergent business challenges, which is four times higher than weak collaborators. 

In short, when people work cross-functionally, they have more opportunities to experience, learn, and comprehend more facets of a problem or project. That depth of understanding begets greater innovation. 

3 real examples of strong cross-functional collaboration

Cross-functional collaboration has its benefits, but you might’ve also heard the old saying, “A camel is a horse designed by a committee.” It’s true that work can get clunky and confusing when cross-functional teams aren’t managed well.

But when cross-functional collaboration is done right? Well, that’s when the real magic happens — as evidenced by these three inspiring, real-world cross-functional collaboration examples. 

1. Apple and the development of the first iPhone 

It’s not a surprise to see Apple on any list that mentions innovation. The beloved iPhone is one of the best examples of cross-functional collaboration. 

The development of the first iPhone was a rigorous two-year process coined “Project Purple” internally. A group of different types of engineers — hardware engineers, software engineers, and design engineers — worked closely together to build the prototypes and early versions of the device. That team would regularly present their work to a variety of managers, executives, and Steve Jobs himself to collect their feedback and develop the next iteration. 

When it came to preparing for the launch, it was an engineer who spearheaded the marketing strategy, even being the one to star in the first instructional video. It’s one example of how the project brought in people from all sorts of different functions but also allowed team members to try entirely new roles and skill sets.

The development of the first iPhone wasn’t without its bumps. In fact, team members reportedly endured a lot of miscommunications, frustrations, and other challenges that are common with cross-functional collaborations (especially when working under high pressure and tight deadlines). But it’s safe to say the result was a success, as the iPhone is still responsible for 52% of Apple’s overall revenue.  

2. Thomas Edison and the invention of the lightbulb

Ask anybody who invented the lightbulb — an innovation that quite literally changed the world as we know it — and they’ll probably say Thomas Edison. But what fewer people know is that Edison had an entire team behind him (which he referred to as “muckers”). 

These men were all brilliant minds in their own right, all with different and varied specialties. There were engineers, physicists, machinists, electricians, chemists, photographers… the list goes on. While Edison was the public face of all of his inventions, his muckers were the ones who were behind the scenes, building and testing his ideas. 

That means the lightbulb itself is a glowing example (pun intended) of successful cross-collaboration. Considering that Edison held over 1,000 patents, likely plenty of his other celebrated inventions — like automatic telegraphs, motion pictures, and phonographs — weren’t solo endeavors, but the product of cross-disciplinary teamwork. 

3. IKEA and the company’s commitment to sustainability 

IKEA’s commitment to sustainability isn’t just lip service or a marketing ploy — it’s a company value that the entire organization works toward together. 

“Each part of the IKEA business contributes to the total IKEA sustainability agenda,” the company says on its website. IKEA’s Strategic Sustainability Council is one example of that, bringing together representatives from Inter IKEA Group (that’s the overall franchisor of IKEA) and franchisees into different working groups to share best practices and build knowledge. 

Those conversations and collaborations have inspired several meaningful changes across the entire IKEA brand, including switching the entire lighting range to energy-efficient LED and ensuring that all of the cotton the company uses comes from sustainable sources. 

That’s only the start of IKEA’s commitment, though. The company has pledged to become a circular and climate-positive business by 2030, and it’ll inevitably continue to lean on cross-functional teams to achieve that goal. 

Cross-functional collaboration: Less stress, more success

Working cross-functionally is inevitable for organizations today. But just because everybody does it doesn’t mean everybody does it well

Take some inspiration from the above three examples and you’ll pave the way for cross-functional collaborations that are less stressful – and more successful.

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