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What is cross-functional collaboration and why is it important?
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What is cross-functional collaboration and why is it important?

Discover how cross-functional collaboration can make your teams more innovative and efficient. Plus, 7 steps to overcome the challenges.

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Imagine listening to a soaring violin solo. Beautiful, right? Now, imagine the reedy notes of a clarinet coming in to complement it. Then, a brassy tuba adding depth, a tinkling piano, and finally, the thump of a bass drum. Suddenly, your solo has become a symphony, with different instruments contributing their unique melody to create something that’s more than the sum of its parts.  

Cross-functional collaboration is like this: teams and individuals come together, each bringing their unique skills and expertise to create something that no one person could create alone. It’s a holistic approach that has benefits for creativity, innovation, and company performance.

However, you can’t realize those benefits when information is scattered all over the place and everyone’s playing their own tune. That’s why leaders need to understand the barriers to cross-functional collaboration and build strong, connected teams that can easily find and share what they need.

In this post, you’ll learn about the benefits and challenges of cross-functional collaboration and get seven tips to make it a reality in your organization. You’ll also discover how Switchboard’s visual collaboration platform is a natural home for collaborative teams.   

Unite all your teams in one place. 
Switchboard lets you organize all your people, apps, and files in persistent rooms—so you can always find what you need.  
Learn more

What is cross-functional collaboration and why is it important? 

Cross-functional collaboration is a type of collaboration that occurs when individuals or groups with different skills and experience unite to work toward a common goal. They might be from the same team or organization, or working with external stakeholders. 

For example, a project manager might oversee a cross-functional team of software developers, designers, engineers, and customer support reps for a sprint to improve onboarding flows. 

Cross-functional collaboration can happen within a formal project or organically, like when you reach out to a member of a different team to get help. 

Eliminating silos and collaborating cross-functionally makes your company more agile, adaptable, and resilient. This is essential to survive and thrive in the face of rapidly changing or unpredictable markets and world events. Cross-functional teams are built for adaptability and flexibility, not predictability and stability. They can learn and adapt faster than individuals, challenging the status quo and each other to come up with better ideas. 

Switchboard room with people’s icons, apps, and documents open.
Switchboard’s async-first collaboration platform lets you unite cross-functional teams in one interactive space. Source: Switchboard 

Let’s take a look at some other benefits of cross-functional collaboration. 

Benefits of cross-functional collaboration

Cross-functional collaboration benefits your teams, company, and customers. Here’s how. 

  • Combined skills sets and knowledge: Cross-functional teams are a goldmine of unique skills, experiences, different perspectives, and insights. Diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones at problem solving, predictions, and developing solutions, achieving 45% more revenue from innovation. Learning from each other also lets people develop and become more versatile, as well as take new learnings back to their existing teams.

    As Startup Marketing Consultant Elliott Brown says that, with cross-functional collaboration, “You get people with an array of skills and experience to contribute to the same project, adding all their unique value to get more done or create something that couldn't be created with the expertise of just one person or one team.” 
  • Creativity and innovation: When people from different backgrounds come together it leads to a more holistic understanding of customer needs. This, plus new ideas, sparks creativity, resulting in the development of innovative products and services.

    “Any team that needs to brainstorm,” says Brown, “that's a great place for cross functional collaboration. As a marketer, you want to hear from the sales team, because they know the customer better than you do… you want to learn from their expertise.” 
  • Alignment: Collaborating cross-functionally helps eliminate team and information silos. It also aligns people towards common business goals when they see how they fit into the bigger picture. This is particularly important for teams like product, marketing, or C-suite, whose decision-making is based on shared expertise and knowledge.

  • Efficiency: People and businesses can get stuck in their ways, unquestioningly following processes that may no longer be fit for purpose. Cross-functional working challenges this, introducing new perspectives and ways of doing things. This can lead to improved processes, more streamlined workflows, and greater efficiency.

  • Employee engagement: In a Deloitte study, teams in companies that collaborate cross-functionally were 69% more likely to have control over how they achieve goals, which is highly motivating. Add the chance to contribute ideas, feel valued, learn, and collaborate at different levels of the organization and you have a recipe for engagement.  

Common challenges of cross-functional collaboration

The benefits of cross-functional collaboration outweigh the challenges. However, you need to be aware of potential barriers so you can tackle them. Let’s look at those next.  

  • Lack of alignment: Different departments and people have different goals and strategies, which can lead to misalignment on cross-functional projects.

    Brown says, “Each team has dedicated resources and is trying to balance things out to serve their goals as best they can. If you can't ‘sell’ to each other or at least develop a strong common understanding of what everyone's trying to accomplish–and why it's important–you may not get the support you need from your cross functional partners.” 
  • Siloed working and information: When people or departments work alone, and when information is scattered across different tools, it’s a barrier to effective cross-functional collaboration. For example, if sales is resistant to sharing user demographic data with product, you can’t make data-driven decisions to improve features.

  • Different standards: Different ways of working and communicating can lead to bottlenecks, misunderstandings, and inefficiencies. “It can really derail things,” says Brown, “when one team is trying to do things one way or has one theory, and another doesn't have a consistent approach to doing things.”

  • Resistance to change: Challenging the status quo can be scary. Anyone stuck in their ways may reject new tools, coworkers, or processes.
  • Managing different personalities: The more diverse your team, the more different personalities you have to manage, which can get tricky. If you’re used to managing a group of people in marketing who communicate well, you might find reticent data scientists a challenge. Also, if people aren’t answering to their usual line manager, this can cause issues, especially if a clear leadership role hasn’t been defined. This can lead to infighting or struggles for dominance. 
  • Lack of trust: This either underpins or leads to many of the above issues. Unfamiliar people and processes, or just bad past experiences, can cause people to be wary of collaborating.  

7 steps to implement cross-functional collaboration on your teams

Now you know the benefits and challenges of cross-functional collaboration, let’s look at how you can make good cross-functional collaboration a reality in your organization. 

1. Start small 

If people are new to cross-functional collaboration, try to start small by collaborating on bite-sized projects or problems. This lets people get to know each other before diving into large high-stakes projects.  

Roll out new tools, workflows, and team structures gradually and progressively so people have a chance to get used to them. This should ensure a smoother transition and put people at ease. 

For example, a product team could start by collaborating on a small feature enhancement involving design, development, and UX teams. They could use new collaboration tools like a shared project management platform to get familiar with cross-functional workflows and communication before tackling a complete product overhaul.

Switchboard room with Asana project tracker and chat between team members.
You can use any browser-based tool in Switchboard, so you don’t need to toggle out to check project progress. Source: Switchboard 

2. Get clear on roles and goals

Cross-functional goals should be ones no individual or single team can meet on their own. This avoids them being superseded by individual goals. However, everyone should be accountable for achieving objectives. 

For example, to increase user engagement by 20% in the next quarter, you need a joint effort by your development team for technical implementation, marketing for user data, and data analysis for performance tracking. Shared KPIs, metrics, and a unified vision helps align team efforts and get everyone working toward a common goal. If you find things drifting, revisit the group’s objectives and key results (OKRs). Look at who’s doing what and whether these collaboration efforts still tie into the bigger picture.

You should also establish roles and lines of reporting. People may be working outside their comfort zone, but that doesn’t mean there are no rules. You want to create an environment where ideas can flow freely. For this reason, establish who has the final say on ideas and decisions. You should also appoint an end-to-end owner to oversee the entire project lifecycle and keep everyone on track and on task. This helps avoid collaboration overload when people are invited to too many meetings.

3. Develop your leadership skills

Deloitte identifies leadership as the number one factor in driving change. It also reveals that 73% of digitally maturing companies that collaborate cross-functionally create a supportive work environment for their teams and evaluate them as a group. By contrast, a lower percentage of developing and early stage companies take this approach.

To create this environment, set bold team goals that redefine team aspirations and outcomes. Then, put the processes, tools, and structures in place to empower people to do their jobs. Leaders are also well placed to spot those who could shine in a new role, giving them a chance to grow.

You also need to be a great communicator, capable of relating to different personalities. “Empathy is really important,” says Brown. “You have to understand where someone is coming from and what they're trying to achieve… you need to be able to get to a meeting of the minds by understanding what motivates each team.”

Other essential skills for cross-functional leadership include establishing trust, making decisions, solving problems, and resolving conflict. Finally, you should model change by collaborating with other leaders and making cross-functional collaboration a priority at all levels.

4. Establish strong relationships and shared values

Cross-functional collaboration relies on strong relationships—and that starts at the top.

Brown says, “You have to have a meeting of the minds at the top of the org chart, and do a really good job of facilitating similar relationships downstream…. Whoever is leading the other team, you have to be in sync. Then, you help your direct reports build strong relationships with their counterparts… You can't be involved every step of the way so you have to build this connective tissue between teams to work cross-functionally.”

To do this, look for opportunities to connect and get to know each other, like with a fun icebreaker to kick off meetings or an organized team building event. This breaks down barriers, humanizes team members, and lets them find common ground. All this builds the trust, empathy, openness, accountability, and good communication you need for successful collaboration.

Pro tip: Create a dedicated, persistent games or watercooler room in Switchboard for team building activities and spontaneous interactions–in real time or async.

5. Communicate clearly and transparently

Clear, transparent communication is necessary to communicate project goals and keep everyone aligned. Set up communication channels–Slack, email, etc.–and hold regular check-ins and share updates. You should also have channels for two-way feedback, like an anonymous form on your website, so you can continually improve processes and systems and nip conflict in the bud.

If you’re using Switchboard you can keep everyone on the same page without the need for constant meetings. For example, by holding daily standups async using a Google Doc in your persistent room for people to add their points to. You can also share updates in Switchboard before meetings so people can get up to speed async and come ready to work when the meeting starts. This lets you cancel more meetings and make the ones you do have more productive.

Remember to over communicate and cater to different learning styles: if a message isn’t getting through, send it again, maybe in a different format. For example, by recording a short video instead of another email.

Switchboard room with Google Sheet open and app statuses.
Set up a persistent stand-up room in Switchboard so people can get up to date async—without the need for constant meetings. Source: Switchboard 

6. Eliminate silos

Whether it’s two people in different departments or a multi-industry consortium, cross-functional collaboration relies on team collaboration and information sharing. This can’t happen when information is scattered all over the place in different formats—or if people aren’t willing to share it.

The above tips will all help eliminate team silos. To eliminate information silos, use Switchboard to organize everything–and everyone–you need for your project in persistent rooms that save your work. All browser-based apps work without integrations so anyone can pull up and share information with a simple copy-paste. No more digging around in Slack threads or tools to find what you need. Also, because everything’s multiplayer, you can work side by side in a meeting or hop in later to add contributions async.  

Switchboard menu of apps that can be used.
Switchboard reduces context switching by letting you use all your favorite tools from the same persistent room. Source: Switchboard 

7. Use the right tools

The right tech is essential to move projects forward, track progress, and communicate in real time or async. Aim for a lean tech stack of tools that integrate well with each other. This keeps costs and training needs down and avoids information silos and busywork.

For example, if you're using a tool to map user interactions with your new product, it helps if it can talk to your customer relationship management (CRM) platform to enrich insights with demographic data.

Your needs will vary by project but, as a rule, you’ll probably need:

  • Knowledge sharing and document collaboration tools like Notion and Google Workspace
  • Project management platforms like Asana to assign tasks and deadlines and track progress
  • Communication tools like Slack and email
  • Project management platforms like Asana to assign tasks and deadlines and track progress Communication tools like Slack and email
  • An async-first collaboration platform like Switchboard with video conferencing, chat, polls, and voting for real time and async working and communication

Check out this post for more on the impact of visual collaboration.

Cross functional collaboration: Stronger, faster, better teams

Cross-functional collaboration plays to the unique strengths of each team member, making for more aligned, creative, and engaged teams—and a more efficient, agile, and resilient business.

It’s not without its challenges, though, and is hard to achieve when information is scattered all over the place—and everyone’s doing their own thing. Resistance to change, different ways of doing things, and multiple cooks in the kitchen all add to the complexity. If not carefully managed, these can lead to lack of trust and alignment.

That’s why you need to understand the barriers to cross-functional collaboration and build strong, connected teams that can easily find and share what they need with each other. To do this, get clear on roles and shared goals, communicate clearly, and build strong relationships to stay aligned and establish the trust and empathy you need for great teamwork.

When you use Switchboard as the basis of your cross-functional tech stack, you also eliminate silos and context switching by keeping everything and everyone organized in one place. Just create your persistent project room, pull up all the multiplayer browsers you need, and create your cross-functional symphony–in real time or async.  

Unite all your teams in one place.
Switchboard lets you organize all your people, apps, and files in persistent rooms—so you can always find what you need.
Learn more

Frequently asked questions about cross functional collaboration

What does cross-functionally mean?

Cross-functionally refers to when people from different functional areas or various departments within an organization collaborate. It can also mean collaboration across different industries. Either way, it involves diverse teams working together, leveraging their varied skills, experiences, and perspectives to achieve common goals.

What is an example of cross-functional cooperation?

An example of cross-functional cooperation is a product development team that includes people from engineering, development, the marketing team, and customer service. Leveraging their unique skills and insights into user needs, they can collaborate to design better products. 

How do you demonstrate cross-functional collaboration?

You can demonstrate cross-functional collaboration by actively engaging team members from different departments in project planning, goal setting, and project execution. You can also demonstrate it by leading by example. This means modeling strong relationships at leadership level, communicating openly, and sharing information.

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Unite all your teams in one place.

Switchboard lets you organize all your people, apps, and files in persistent rooms—so you can always find what you need.