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Getting the Most From Cross-Functional Collaboration

Decision-makers in a given business may ultimately decide which organizational changes or initiatives to go through with, but without information supporting their drive to action, things may not go as planned.

Operational data gleaned from assets, sales metrics, KPIs – these things determine when leaders need to take the helm, but they do not provide a full picture of where to go from there. Cross-functional collaboration fleshes out that perspective and, in theory, provides a context in which solutions develop organically. However, employees from different departments may not see eye to eye upon first meeting. If your cross-functional team creates more chaos than order, what might it be lacking?

Governance of ideas as well as people
While cross-functional collaboration sounds democratic, it cannot thrive without defined leadership, according to a study conducted by Behnam Tabrizi, a professor at Stanford University’s Department of Management Science and Engineering. Tabrizi found organizations with “strong governance support” had a 76% success rate while those with only “moderate governance support” only succeeded 19% of the time.

Cross-functional teamsProsperity in cross-functional collaboration is about sharing information as much as it is about who information is shared with.

But how do we define “governance”? Yes, governance could mean identifying a single leader who listens to cross-functional collaborators and decides the course of action based on the discussions. Governance could also imply a multi-tiered structure, where one executive level cross-functional team represents a larger body of employees, respectively.

Regardless of the cross-functional model chosen or leader(s) assigned, every team needs one clear goal. Later, we’ll talk about the importance of ancillary objectives for each arm of a cross-functional team, but these tasks should all strive to galvanize the main goal. Cross-functional collaboration shouldn’t operate with bargaining chips, where one department promises to help so long as the greater business meets its individual priorities. Instead, all factions must coalesce around a sole objective and check all other issues at the door.

Evenly portioned communication from the onset
All cross-functional collaboration planning sessions must address how invested parties will communicate going forward and how frequently communication should occur. Groups may be inclined to focus on the former rather than the latter, but a balance of both is what makes communication work to their advantage.

“When in-person meetings occur too often, they hamper more than help”.

For instance, a study from the Malardalen University School of Sustainable Development uncovered that even in the digital age, face-to-face conversations still prove the most effective and efficient means to coordinate cross-functionally. In-person conversations, however, do have a drawback that drains their benefits: high frequency. When in-person meetings occur too often, they hamper efficacy and efficiency more than help.

Similarly, while digital communication like email or group messaging platforms have a positive impact on time management, an overloaded inbox can work against productivity. That said, benchmarking progress digitally ensures adherence to assigned tasks, as well as a history of documentation to refer back to if something gets derailed. Again, striking a balance with regards to communication medium and frequency of internal contact allows cross-functional teams to share knowledge and develop without creating more work for themselves or sabotaging their efforts.

Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines
Members of cross-functional collaboration teams should always leave meetings with a specific objective to accomplish until the next check-in, a small step toward the greater goal.

Time afforded to complete said task should certainly reflect the size and scope of the given task, but everything a cross-functional team does deserves a deadline for two reasons. First, scheduled deadlines keep the group as a whole on pace to finish the overarching objective it set out to perform, even with all its disparate moving parts. Second, deadlines create an impetus for collaborators to communicate early on if their progress begins to slip for whatever reason.

If cross-functional collaboration at your business feels like a runaway bus with several drivers steering in different directions, these tips can help centralize the mission, set concise expectations, and involve everybody evenly so projects drive straight toward success.