Getting the most out of cross-team collaboration

Great teams benefit from the contributions of individuals. Great companies maximize the output of their teams, but the best companies? They bring different departments together to achieve a common goal.

Cross-functional collaboration within a company is a good indicator that management respects the abilities of their different teams and understands collaborative workflows. It’s also evidence that they divide labor well and don’t pile responsibilities onto too few people.

What is cross-collaboration? It is when new teams are created from teams who don’t historically work together—suits with scrubs, creatives with sales teams, desk jobs with people-facing, etc.

Some examples could include:

  • A marketing team working with developers to craft messaging about a program or offering.

  • Executives/directors teaming up with customer support staff (during business hours).

  • Developer teams asking non-Quality Assurance teams to test their software.

  • IT department giving a training on information security.

  • Company-wide problem-solving task force.

There are many benefits to cross-collaboration when it’s done right. These new teams develop better relationships with one another, knowledge is shared across departments, companies get more voices contributing to projects, and more.

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So what’s the best way to promote better cross-team/cross-departmental collaborations? Let’s talk about it.

Finding a common goal

At its core, a group is just people centered around one idea. Each person has their own relationship with that idea, and when it’s time to get work done, each member of the group has a specific role in what to do.

That’s the simple definition, though. The truth is that most companies have varied and sometimes even competing company goals and interests. What’s good for one group at a company may hinder another’s ability to do their job. For example, a software team may want new capabilities that only hardware can provide, but the hardware department doesn’t feel developing it is within their scope of responsibility.

A famous cross-collaboration conundrum happened during the early 20th century at Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford wanted to streamline his new assembly line production model to cut costs and save on labor. His marketing department, however, wanted Ford to offer more models and styles so consumers had a choice beyond the Model T (illustrating Ford’s singular focus on efficiency, he said, “you can have it in any color as long as it’s black”).

As Ford refused to expand inventory, competitors like GM began to take more and more automobile market share. It wasn’t until Ford relented that they rolled out the Model A—a more stylish, personalized vehicle that put them back in competition.

Letting stakeholders throughout the company hear different perspectives from different groups of people is key to identifying and working toward a shared goal.

Valuing your team’s time

“Let’s schedule more team meetings for fun!” — No one

Collaboration works great when time is spent effectively. When it isn’t, teams get stuck in useless time vacuums, such as directionless meetings that only benefit management’s ego (sorry, managers).

We’ve all been there—buzzwords, vague plans, excessive small talk that numb brains instead of stimulate them through activity and creativity. A complete misuse of team communication.

When opportunities for cross-functional team collaboration arise, the most important thing is to know the desired outcome and prioritize it. Are we brainstorming? Cool, let’s focus on generating ideas and not on whether or not something is realistic. Are we pushing a deployment to be tested today? Great, let’s not ask how to be more efficient with testing.

It’s ironic how managers can distract from a group’s collaborative fusion and then complain later that collaboration lacks direction and focus. The fact is, people collaborate best when they can work—not when they’re stuck dealing with a nosy manager (sorry again, managers 😬). Cross-functional projects sometimes require senior-rankers to hand over the reins and step back from their employees’ collective workspace.

There should also be a clear plan about the bigger picture here: what will result from the collaboration and how the collaboration ought to go. Without that, even the best teams can end up sidetracked and distracted.

Have a plan for collaboration; one that goes beyond simply scheduling a meeting. Managers should clarify expectations about the work to be done, including asking for questions and feedback. Be brief and decisive, and let teams get to work.

Be mindful of conflict

Anytime different teams come together, there’s a chance for conflict to arise. Mature professionals aren’t usually the cause as they tend to navigate tough conversations just fine. Younger employees, however, can be a little more likely to get feisty and start debating.

This isn’t a problem. At least, not a big one. Actually, it’s an unavoidable and important step of group dynamics. Before collaboration efforts can really gel, they need to know each other’s boundaries and communication styles.

Most employees won’t have trouble working in groups, but if there is a conflict that boils over more than is comfortable, managers must be there to listen and offer advice.

There is no value in talking over someone else, so if that’s what’s happening, intervention is important. Sometimes it’s a simple misunderstanding, other times it’s a legitimate impasse that needs to be overcome. Managers can offer impartial help by asking team members to state both their opinion and the opinion of the other person they’re in conflict with.

If things remain snarky and prickly, managers should let the team know that respect is mandatory in collaborative situations.

By the way, agreement isn’t the ultimate goal. Sometimes it happens and other times it doesn’t, but it’s important for collaboration not to lead to hurt feelings and damaged work relationships.

Open the door to learning new skill sets

“If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples, then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.” ― George Bernard Shaw

One of the benefits of cross-team collaboration is the development of new skills that result from knowledge sharing. When teams are exposed to the ideas, knowledge, and insights of others, they can take what they learn home with them. Personally, this is my favorite part of collaboration—the free job shadowing.

There are so many things to love about upskilling employees through effective collaboration, such as:

  • Defining each individual’s duties and responsibilities

  • Introducing people to new career opportunities

  • Building awareness of what other jobs entail

  • Developing respect for the skills and talents of coworkers

  • Broadening employee perspectives

  • Knowing where you fit in is vital knowledge when working for a company. That knowledge is made much clearer when people see their coworkers contributing in unique ways.

Make collaboration fun

Getting people together in groups is fun, or at least it can be. Depending on how often collaboration takes place at your company, it might be a good idea to amp it up with something extra, like pizza or ice cream (though if collaboration is the norm, this won’t work long-term).

People enjoy working together and getting to know each other. When treated as more of a celebration, imaginations loosen up and everybody comes up with better ideas. This is the best outcome.

Imagination is critical for good collaboration, and there’s really no bad way to get it started. Here are some ideas for drumming up imagination in fun ways:

  • Brainstorming comically bad ways for a project to end up, then transition into more serious ideas.

  • Using arbitrary formats for suggesting ideas, such as going down each letter of the alphabet and naming something that starts with that letter.

  • Submitting ideas anonymously and have someone read them out for everyone.

  • Asking how a random public figure might add to your discussion and decision-making.

  • Going in sequential order to make sure everyone gets a chance to add to the conversation.

Improv books can also be helpful for getting the ball rolling, however unlikely a project management tool it may be. As long as brains warm up and feel comfortable sharing what’s happening inside, your collaboration will have a chance to succeed.

Of course, if your company culture and KPIs don’t cater to this kind of frivolity, getting into a creative, collaborative state can take some work. The good news is that most people enjoy the feeling of letting their guard down, so you’ll most likely have support.

Have deadlines & rubrics

Cross-team collaboration is a fragile endeavor that happens in real-time; interrupt it and you may irreparably derail someone’s creativity. But all good things must come to an end. There has to be a deadline for everything to get done, for both team members and team leaders.

When those collaborations do come to an end, people can tell, making those lingering leftover moments a little awkward.

Make sure teams know that their collaboration will have an expiration date. This should go without saying, but there must be a specified time when everyone can take off their collaboration caps and shift back into work mode (or go home or whatever is next). Some managers put their teams into collaboration mode with no real scope of when things need to wrap up.

This leads to frustrated and poor employee engagement via lots of wasted time, so make sure everyone knows the activity will end when the time comes.

It’s also a good idea to establish expectations for an outcome. No, this doesn’t mean furnishing a detailed list of finished products and performance metrics. Just let people know that you expect an end result. Oftentimes that can give purpose to their teamwork.

After the team project is finished (and only after), team members should have a chance to hear the following kinds of feedback:

  • Manager/team leader feedback: Assuming there’s an intended outcome, managers can candidly share what the team did well and what missed the mark. The ideal feedback comes from experience, so feel free to share why an approach worked or didn’t work in the past.

  • Other team member feedback: If the size of the team isn’t prohibitively huge, it’s good a few collaborators to share their thoughts as well. This is a great time to ask questions.

  • Self feedback: Each individual will have a different relationship to the collaborative project. How they view it is important to others, and should be shared so that new perspectives are heard. Complaints may happen here, and that is to be welcomed and respected.

The more chances teams have to collaborate, the more extensive and valuable this kind of feedback will become.

Collaboration is team-building

Good cross-functional teams turn confusing projects into fun problem-solving experiences. The sky is the limit when it comes to what good collaboration can do, which is why great companies create chances for teams to put their heads together and get work done. While some templates are provided in this blog, it is a creative endeavor.

You may also benefit from collaboration tools that direct communication toward the next step of a project. These could include Asana, ClickUp, Jira, Slack, and other apps—whatever eases the process of keeping everyone in the know (such as remote teams).

It takes imagination to dissolve departmental silos and forge communication channels that give people confidence about their job and career outlook. This kind of creativity and imagination can even lead to lasting friendships outside the workplace. All of these are wins for the future of their work environment.