What is cross-functional collaboration & why is it essential today?

On the surface, “collaboration with cross-functional stakeholders” is one of those things that seems like a given. A no-brainer. Of course you need to work closely with people from other teams, right?

But dig a little deeper and you’ll realize that doing cross-functional collaboration effectively requires some serious planning and some compassion, too.

What is cross-functional collaboration?

Before we dig into the perks and pitfalls, let’s align on a cross-functional collaboration definition.

Cross-functional collaboration is when members of different departments or teams come together to execute a specific task, project, or goal. They typically report to an assigned project manager and unite their diverse knowledge, skills, and expertise to get something across the finish line.

What’s an example of a cross-functional team?

Here’s a quick example of cross-functional collaboration for some extra clarity. Your organization wants to create a knowledge base for customers to have a self-serve way to get answers to common questions. To create and launch this knowledge base, you’d likely need to bring together members from…

  • CUSTOMER SUPPORT to outline support issues and resolutions
  • MARKETING to outline, draft, and edit the knowledge base content, and to create customer-facing messaging
  • DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT to create and launch the knowledge base

Why is cross-functional collaboration important?

Bringing all of these cooks into the kitchen can cause hiccups (and we’ll get to those in a minute), but it’s well worth it. Cross-functional collaboration offers several advantages for teams and organizations, including:

  • DIVERSE PERSPECTIVES: There’s plenty of evidence that diverse teams are more innovative and ultimately perform better. Cross-functional teams merge people from all different areas of the organization. Each has unique experiences, perspectives, and skillsets that benefit both the team and the final outcome.
  • BETTER BUSINESS PERFORMANCE: Cross-functional collaboration isn’t a feel-good, woo-woo bonding activity. It has a real impact on the bottom line. Fifty-five percent of workers at collaborative organizations report revenue growth over the past three years, which is almost double what weak collaborators (28%) reported.
  • AGILITY AND ADAPTABILITY: Saying that organizations have had to stay nimble over the past few years is an understatement. But cross-functional teams prove that we’re stronger and more resilient together. Seventy-nine percent of workers at collaborative organizations feel well-prepared to adapt to emergent business challenges, which is four times higher than weak collaborators.

The reality is that cross-functional collaboration isn’t just positive, it’s also prevalent, and unavoidable. As collaborative technologies have increased, cross-functional collaboration has too. According to Deloitte, eighty-three percent of digitally maturing companies report that they use cross-functional teams.

It’s never been easier to work closely with other members of the organization, regardless of whether they’re next door or across the globe. This level of access allows teams to collaborate more efficiently and effectively than ever before. And, it’s an opportunity they need to harness to stay competitive.

Silos, stress, and snafus: The many struggles of cross-functional collaboration (and how to overcome them)

Cross-functional collaboration might be advantageous, but it’s far from easy. These varied teams face a number of hurdles. Here are a few of the most common ones, as well as how to jump over them.

Problem #1: Lack of alignment

Team members don’t just bring along their skills and knowledge, they also have their unique (and sometimes competing) goals, working styles, team norms, expectations, and more. It can be tough to find common ground. In fact, more than half of people in this Deloitte survey cite alignment problems as a major barrier to success.

Solution: Start with a project kickoff

Project kickoffs are always crucial, but especially on teams where people might be coming in with little prior knowledge about what they’re working on, who they’re working with, and why it’s happening.

Starting with clear, shared objectives is crucial for uniting the team and setting them up for success. Seventy-one percent of people at companies with clear goals said it was easy to work with stakeholders in other functions. This is compared with only 26% of workers with no clear goals.

Use our project kickoff template to align your cross-functional team from the outset. It’s also perfect for creating a project manifesto so you can agree on objectives, values, and ways of working. This will also hopefully avoid conflicts and misunderstandings down the line.

Problem #2: Unfamiliarity and mistrust

You have some innate familiarity and comfort with the people you work with day-to-day. It’s rooted in psychology and the mere-exposure effect, which states that repeated exposure alone can increase our preference for something.

You don’t have that same level of security with members of a cross-functional team whom you might never have interacted with prior to this project. That’s why cross-functional teams need to be more intentional about building trust, rapport, and psychological safety.

Solution: Build camaraderie

Cross-functional teams don’t always have opportunities to forge bonds and establish connections, particularly if they know they’re only assigned to a short-term project together.

However, rapport and camaraderie lay the foundation for psychological safety. So don’t overlook the importance of using some icebreakers and team-building activities to give the team a way to get to know each other. Even a little bit of familiarity and comfort can pay off as work progresses.

Problem #3: Siloed information

Teams likely have their own tools and processes for managing information, and many of those can be inaccessible to other members of the cross-functional team. Knowledge silos are a common problem for organizations and teams. Forty-seven percent of digital workers admit they struggle to find the information and data they need to do their jobs.

Solution: Establish a single source of truth

Your cross-functional team needs to work together. That’s not to say they can’t have their own system and tools for their own functions, but the entire team still needs visibility into progress and relevant updates.

That’s why it’s so helpful to establish a workspace (a Miro board is perfect for this) that serves as the “central hub” for your project or collaboration. Team members can share information, post status updates, stay in touch with what’s happening, and get the level of transparency they need.

Need even more tips for smooth cross-functional collaboration? Check out these strategies.

Getting cross-functional collaboration right

Chances are, you’re already doing cross-functional collaboration to some degree. But the question to ask yourself isn’t if you’re doing it — it’s if you’re doing it well.

Successful cross-functional collaboration requires more than yanking people into the same room or Slack channel and telling them that they’re a team now. Getting it right takes some strategy, intention, and in today’s digital world, the right collaboration tools too.

Get started with a cross-functional flow chart

Miro's flow chart tool a powerful way to map out complex cross-functional processes within an organization. Create yours today!

Learn more