Streamline cross-functional collaboration efforts in 6 steps

Learn how cross-functional teams are more effective when leadership takes proactive measures

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These days, as organizations of all sizes must be as nimble as the newest startup, cross-functional collaboration has become a crucial component of an organization’s ability to remain competitive. Yet, chances are, if your teams are collaborating cross-functionally, they’re not doing it very well.

One Stanford researcher’s study suggests that a full 75% of cross-functional teams are working inefficiently, or worse, dysfunctionally. Projects might be falling behind schedule, or teams might be out of the loop. Whatever issues your cross-functional teams are facing, review the six items on this checklist to help get everyone back on track.

1. Have a big-picture plan with as many specifics as possible

As an organizational expert and co-author of The Harvard Business Review Leader’s Handbook and The GE Work-Out, Ron Ashkenas is a big proponent of coming to the table with a detailed roadmap and desired goal to keep both team leaders and individual team members on the same page as they work together.

“Map out the end-to-end work that you think will be needed to get the outcome you want,” Ashkenas writes in Harvard Business Review. “What will your team be responsible for? What will you need from other teams in the organization?”

“As you create this map,” Ashkenas advises, “sketch out the possible sequencing of activities and timing that might be required. You want to create an explicit framework that will serve as a collaboration contract.”

That way, he says, “When people know what’s needed, in what form, and by when, they can then tell you whether it’s possible or not, and then you can have a real dialogue about what can be done.”

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2. Double-check the group’s mindset

Are you sure the people involved in cross-functional collaboration and the decision-making process are the right thinkers for the job? Diverse groups tend to work more effectively because they bring a wider variety of ideas to the table.

If your projects are being overseen by homogenous groups—even if each team member is a high-performer individually—they’re more likely to quickly agree on a solution than they are to tease out the best solutions.

3. Add checkpoints to stay on track

Just because teams are interacting pleasantly and sharing information frequently doesn’t mean they’re truly collaborating. Without an agreed-upon pipeline and dedicated check-ins along the way, cross-functional collaboration is liable to begin and end with a friendly rapport.

“Most managers are cooperative, friendly and willing to share information,” writes Ashkenas. “But what they lack is the ability and flexibility to align their goals and resources with others in real time.”

Leaders should share plans with the team and give members the opportunity to actively opt into the roadmap. And, if necessary, revise the plan using the team’s input. While confident leadership is crucial, achieving consensus at the start is just as necessary to give cross-functional teams a sense of structure, accountability and actionable purpose.

Once the plan is ratified, make sure that teams are holding to it. Implement a digital project management tool to ensure that individual tasks aren’t simply being handed off until they’re forgotten.

Also, empower leaders whenever possible to share resources—not just information. Have them schedule follow-ups on their assigned action items at regular intervals. Delineating between information-sharing meetings and decision-making meetings might help teams continue thinking structurally.

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4. Respect individual group sovereignty

In the Harvard Business Review, researcher Lisa B. Kwan suggests that one of the biggest threats to effective cross-functional collaboration is simpler than you’d expect. Essentially, throwing a bunch of teams together and expecting each to give up their autonomy and authority makes them defensive and liable to self-silo.

“In mandating and planning for collaborative initiatives, leaders tend to focus on logistics and processes, incentives and outcomes. That makes perfect sense,” Kwan writes. “But in doing so they forget to consider how the groups they’re asking to work together might experience the request—especially when those groups are being told to break down walls, divulge information, sacrifice autonomy, share resources or even cede responsibilities that define them as a group.”

Kwan goes on to explain how groups often feel threatened by such demands because they seem to represent openings for others to encroach on their territory. “What if the collaboration is a sign that they’ve become less important to the company?” Kwan writes. “What if they give up important resources and areas of responsibility and never get them back? What will happen to their reputation?”

To counteract this, Kwan suggests watching out for warning signs ranging from unusually slow response times to overt power plays. Anticipate and compensate for how each team might react to sacrificing their authority/autonomy by:

  • Reinforcing the team’s identity. Show members you see them. Know exactly what they do and why they’re integral to the organization’s daily functions, and make sure they know the higher-ups recognize this.
  • Reaffirming the team’s legitimacy. Publicly reiterate the team’s value to the wider organization and make sure members receive credit for the parts of the final product that fallin their area of expertise.
  • Reasserting the team’s control. Ensure that each team has oversight and final say over their subject matter within the larger cross-functional group.

5. Toss out the shorthand and jargon

When differing minds finally come to the table for cross-functional collaboration, communication and problem-solving styles may clash. That’s why it’s important to discourage “implicit” communication habits early and often.

Make communication explicit wherever possible, both in digital project management systems and in person, from decision-making processes to meeting agendas. The less shorthand your cross-functional teams are using, the less exposed they’ll be to communication missteps that could bring the whole operation to a skidding halt.

6. When in doubt, incentivize

A 2016 McKinsey case study suggests incentive alignment—that is, educating team members about the benefits of actively participating in cross-functional collaboration—is key in realizing the success of cross-functional projects. Call it the Pizza Party Rule: When people know what’s in it for them—like when your elementary school teacher promised the class a pizza party for perfect attendance—they’re also more likely to take the initiative to run their own internal diagnostics and bring big projects to bear without top-down monitoring.

Ensure that the entire organization can see and understand the value in the goal being chased—beyond company profit or growth. Does this project’s success mean that the team will spend less time tackling busy work, like repetitive tasks or reporting that can be automated? Does it mean a department’s reputation in the wider company will get a huge boost? Encourage leaders to communicate these benefits well and you’ll start seeing better cross-functional collaboration in no time.

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