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March 22, 2024

Cross-functional collaboration: What is it & how to implement it

Hybrid Management Project Management
Jerzy Żurawiecki Content Specialist @BigPicture

When teams work in departmental silos, it’s difficult to come up with a cohesive vision and execute it effectively. Compartmentalized work is costly, too. According to Harvard Business Review, siloing wastes around $8,000 a day.

But innovative organizations break through the silos and promote cross-functional collaboration.

You can empower teams to bridge gaps in knowledge and improve alignment. Create solid foundations for cross-functional teams, and it will translate into more effective work.

What is cross-functional collaboration?

Cross-functional collaboration is the process of having people from different teams working together. It usually involves creating a cross-functional team that participates in various projects.

Some of these roles follow an Agile framework like Scrum or Kanban, while others work in a more predictive approach (like Waterfall).

In Agile environments, cross-functional collaboration becomes the secret sauce.

Imagine a team where an engineer, a marketer, a software developer, and a UX designer seamlessly blend their skills. This diverse mix ensures quick responses to changes, efficient problem-solving, and a smooth flow of tasks through Agile frameworks like Scrum or Kanban.

Cross-functional collaboration becomes the driving force behind Agile success, fostering continuous improvement and adaptability to changing project requirements.

Even in Non-agile environments (Waterfall methodologies), cross-functional collaboration acts as a bridge. It brings together individuals with varied skills and approaches, helping streamline processes, break down silos, and promote a culture of collaboration.

In Waterfall, where projects follow a more sequential and structured approach, cross-functional teams enhance communication, reduce bottlenecks, and contribute to the overall success.

Key benefits of cross-functional collaboration

Enhanced team and employee engagement

Siloed work doesn’t always promote growth. And even if it does, there’s a level when professional growth plateaus. Employees who don’t improve their skills might feel demotivated.

With cross-functional teams, there’s usually only one person with a given skill set. Naturally, they become the go-to people who share their knowledge with others. That opens up new conversations with other members.

As a result, the work gains an extra level of meaning. It’s not just about doing the work. It’s also about sharing knowledge with others. It can give employees an extra boost of motivation.

Streamlined work processes

When cross-functional collaboration is done right, the team shapes internal processes instead of adjusting to them. Each member has insights into what worked for them and how to improve bottlenecks. Keep in mind that this only happens when you empower your team members to participate in establishing the processes.

Be ready for the initial confusion and friction. However, the long-term benefits will outweigh any rocky start once the team learns how to work together.

Improved problem-solving

When faced with a challenge, a cross-functional team can draw on a wider pool of knowledge and experience to identify and solve problems more effectively. Each member brings their unique viewpoint to the table, allowing for a more comprehensive understanding of the issue.

Cultivating a culture of knowledge-sharing

Think about all the teams in your organization. Each has its own area of expertise with knowledge that often gets “stuck” within the department. Cross-functional collaboration removes these structural barriers.

The collaborative nature of cross-functional teams motivates members with diverse skill sets to learn from each other. As a result, knowledge and insights flow throughout teams more frequently and freely.

Enhanced empathy across teams

When teams from different areas work together, it’s like tearing down invisible walls between them. This helps team members understand each other better and feel more connected. They learn about the challenges and perspectives of their colleagues, making the work environment more interesting and collaborative.

Working on projects together creates a bridge that connects people from different fields, allowing them to set common goals and appreciate each other’s ideas and contributions more deeply.

Improved communication and team development

Let’s face it: processing everything you see and hear during company-wide staff meetings is tough. It’s even harder when the topic of discussion isn’t an area you are familiar with. When representatives of various teams work together, information flows more effectively.

And the stakes are higher when cooperating on a project, which means that people are more likely to ask questions. If they don’t, they might make a mistake. So, team members are more motivated to receive information during a project than when department heads give company-wide updates.

How to implement collaborative cross-functional systems

This cross-functional collaboration sounds great, doesn’t it? But you need the right foundations to get people from diverse teams to work together well. Here are some things you can do to lay the groundwork for the team’s successful cooperation.

Define clear roles and set cross-functional goals

When organizing a cross-functional team, set expectations at the start. Everyone on the team should understand what’s required, who’s responsible for which tasks, and what the timeline is. But it’s not just about what your project goals are. Each team member needs to know how they can contribute to delivery.

Once you agree on the goals, it’s time to determine the areas of ownership. Knowing “who does what” is not an issue in a traditional team. But when skills and job titles mix, the path to determining roles gets more complicated. Assigning ownership over the project’s key phases or tasks at the start will be very helpful in setting the team structure.

Last but not least, there’s the issue of constraints. Like any other project, your team will be bound by the timeline and budget. Be up-front about available resources.

Choose technology designed for cross-functional teams

Your project management software can help manage teams using different approaches. For example, BigPicture supports Classic, Agile, and Hybrid approaches. You can monitor the progress of Waterfall and Agile elements of the project in one place.

Say you have a team consisting of a designer and a developer. The developer might work in sprints and use Agile metrics, whereas the designer could prefer a more predictive approach.

With BigPicture, you can plan the project while accounting for both styles. The same applies to program and portfolio management. When some elements of your project or portfolio are Agile in nature, and others are Classic or Hybrid, BigPicture can display them all in one place.

A screenshot showing Agile and Waterfall elements in one project in BigPicture.
An example of a project with Waterfall stages and Agile sprints. In BigPicture, you can manage both in the same space.

Best practices

Look to hire and build a collaborative team

For a cross-functional team to succeed, they need all the skills required to deliver the project. So, looking at your team from a skill standpoint is critical.

Not everyone is willing to leave their comfort zone and work in a cross-functional team. And no matter what you do, some people just won’t thrive in that environment. It’s something you need to consider when picking your team members.

If you’re assembling a team of current employees, it might be a chance for them to grow outside of their roles. That can be exciting, especially for those employed in your organization for a long time.

When hiring new team members, ask them about previous experiences working with other departments and their willingness to join a cross-functional team. Being upfront about the team structure will let you and the candidates know where both sides stand.

Set clear goals and KPIs

Knowing where the team is going and how to measure their progress is a must. For a team with members from various departments, the new objectives might initially be confusing. But there should be clarity if you follow the SMART approach (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound).

The same applies to Key Performance Indicators. The team needs to know the criteria for success or failure.

Frequent evaluation of the progress with the team will be incredibly beneficial. Most managers communicate the progress to their superiors. But, discussing the goal completion with the team motivates the group to generate new ideas (if the team is underperforming) or gives them peace of mind (if the KPIs are on track).

Create space for building personal relationships

High-performing teams not only work together. They also know each other well. Provide opportunities for members to build rapport. Whether it’s team-building games, off-site events, or outdoor activities, they can increase engagement and help foster stronger ties between team members.

It’s best to implement these opportunities at the early stages of the team’s life cycle. That way, you can start the collaboration process on a high note.

Remote work and hiring people from various locations or time zones might make things difficult. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. You can get the ball rolling if you gather the whole team in one place (physically or virtually).

Encourage frequent communication

Real collaboration happens when people talk to each other instead of exchanging emails or direct messages, so you want to create a communicative environment. Most Scrum teams host daily meetings to discuss their plans and issues. You can schedule similar meetings for your cross-functional team.

Naturally, the frequency and format are entirely up to you. But balance giving the team space for discussion vs. flooding them with meetings that could have been emails.

Define communication channels and protocols to ensure that information flows freely among team members. Regularly scheduled meetings, virtual collaboration spaces, and instant messaging platforms can help facilitate communication and keep everyone informed.

Set up regular check-ins

Schedule regular team meetings and check-ins to monitor progress, address challenges, and provide in-depth updates. These meetings should be structured and focused on problem-solving.

Facilitate interdisciplinary workshops and meetings

Organize workshops, brainstorming sessions, and cross-functional meetings to encourage collaboration and innovation. These sessions can help break down silos, generate new ideas, and foster creative problem-solving.

Design for remote-first work

Most cross-team roles can be done from home. And if you want to attract the best people, limiting yourself to the area of the office gives you a smaller talent pool to choose from. Not to mention that remote work is an industry standard for roles like software developers.

For larger organizations or international companies, differences in time zones and locations make it impossible to gather all team members in one office.

So, if you’re thinking about creating cross-functional teams, be sure to accommodate those who work remotely. That means providing them with adequate collaboration software and well-documented processes.

Creating an environment that will allow distributed teams to collaborate smoothly takes time. But it’s worth the hassle.

Summary

Now, you know how to implement cross-functionality in your teams. While the beginnings might be tricky, collaborating across skills and departments can benefit the employees and the business.

Software plays a critical role in trouble-free management, especially when team members use different approaches (Waterfall and Agile, for example). If you manage teams or initiatives in Jira, accommodating various methodologies might be challenging.

But adding BigPicture to your app stack will help you manage methodologically diverse teams and initiatives. Our PPM app is compatible with Classic, Agile, and Hybrid approaches. It’s perfect for managing teams, products, projects, programs, and portfolios.

BigPicture lets you plan, track, report, coordinate resources, and manage risks across the organization. As a result, it acts as a single source of truth for all management activities, regardless of the scale of the business.

The app seamlessly integrates with Jira, so your teams can use their preferred work management tool and relevant data flows into BigPicture, where you can get a holistic view of your teams and initiatives. Get the visibility you need to align strategy and execution at all levels of management.

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