Many business leaders see cross-functional collaboration as the key to innovation and optimal business performance. Organizations with excellent collaboration skills can innovate more quickly, implement more improvements, resolve conflicts, and create high-quality products and services. In addition, these organizations attract and retain top talent and enjoy high levels of employee engagement and satisfaction.
Almost everyone agrees that it's good to improve cross-team collaboration. Still, not every business has devoted the effort to creating day-to-day conditions that are likely to result in more teamwork. If you find yourself in this position, here are a few simple strategies that can help set the stage for a more cohesive relationship between various parts of the organization.
Align Performance Management With Company Goals
Excellent cross-functional teamwork happens when everyone is working toward the same critical strategic goals. Unfortunately, in many organizations, the high-level objectives are not made clear to every employee, or they are not structured in such a way as to be part of the day-to-day thinking at the ground level. Leaders can change this by making the key performance indicators visible to each employee in real-time.
The company goals should be cascaded down through each department, location, and team to the individual level. When every person understands how their work relates to the strategic objectives, they can engage with other functions in a more meaningful way that boosts the effectiveness of every team.
Lack of trust is one of the most significant barriers to cross-functional collaboration. If you don't work with a person or team very often, how can you know that they will deliver on their promises? The most effective way to develop trust is to get some quick wins. Start with a small project managed tightly that brings together more than one group. Pay careful attention to the execution of the project, the associated communication, and the method for measuring the outcome. Once the improvement is successfully implemented, be sure to broadcast its success. After the teams have several small projects under their belt, they will be in a better place to start tackling some of the more complex issues at hand.
In most organizations, some individuals are natural connectors. They are the perfect individuals to involve in your cross-functional collaboration efforts because it likely comes naturally to them. Where they go, others will follow. If you are creating a cross-functional team to solve a particular problem, be sure to include one or more influencers.
Leverage Subject Matter Experts
The people in your organization who know the most about particular processes, products, or disciplines can help to accelerate your cross-functional collaboration efforts. Paring a subject matter novice with an expert is a great way to educate the less experienced person and give the expert a new point of view at the same time. No one is likely to be an expert in everything, so the opportunity for employees to learn from others is enormous.
The use of subject matter experts is particularly important when an organization wants to spread a culture of continuous improvement to employees that are not trained in improvement methodologies. You don't need all of your employees to be Lean experts; you just need a handful of leaders with the technical expertise to lead others. Through exposure and practice, your employees will learn enough to participate without becoming experts themselves.
Encourage Random Interactions
The first two strategies involve deliberate coordination, but not all effective collaborative moments must be planned. For example, an impromptu conversation in the break room can often lead to a breakthrough. Companies that are great at cross-functional collaboration design the workspace and the workday to encourage these random interactions. Google, for example, is famous for intentionally creating lines in the cafeteria and snack areas so that employees from different departments will have an opportunity to chat.
There are a few reasons why collaborating outside of the department or team silos can be a pain for employees. First, each group likely has its own way of working on and documenting their improvement efforts (or they don't have one at all!). This slows progress on joint initiatives and impedes the flow of critical information. It is also not uncommon for each team to have its own vocabulary, which can confuse people.
Implementing one standard approach to capturing, documenting, and managing opportunities for improvement helps break down the walls and brings employees together to solve each new challenge. Infusing the culture with a common language for discussing positive change is another way to make team communication less complicated.
Implement Collaboration Tools
Implementing online collaboration tools is the best way to make cross-team collaboration easy. This technology integrates all of your collaboration channels into one platform with real-time information about ongoing projects. The best solutions include project management tools with real-time notifications and alerts, robust search capabilities, and sophisticated reporting. In addition, by bringing structure to collaboration, your team can complete more projects faster, understand the impact of improvement work, and take the friction out of processes that require inputs from more than one team.
Visual management tools are a valuable addition to any collaboration software. For example, digital kanban boards make it easy for everyone to understand the flow of work-in-progress and recognize when progress has stalled. Likewise, online-huddle boards make daily huddle meetings more impactful.
Deploy Standardized Improvement Techniques
In addition to technology, standardized improvement techniques can be a big help. For example, many organizations benefit from a structure improvement cycle such as PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Adjust) or DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control). These methods bring structure to the collaboration process and help people working on a cross-functional project have confidence that everyone knows how to start and work through the project.
Hire and Promote Collaborative Individuals
An organization's culture is the collective behaviors and attitudes of all the individual employees. Leaders can certainly influence culture through example and reward systems, but people bring with them their fundamental way of thinking into the job. Therefore, it makes sense to hire people who enjoy teamwork and collaboration. Interviewers can ask questions about how the candidate has worked with others to achieve critical goals. Another approach is to suggest potential scenarios that would require cross-functional teamwork and ask the candidate how they would approach the challenge. In addition, it is wise to promote employees who demonstrate a dedication to working with others in furtherance of the strategic goals.
Special Considerations for Remote Teams
The prevalence of remote workers was growing steadily before COVID-19 abruptly changed the game for most organizations, making working from home the new normal for information workers. Even after the pandemic subsides, working from home will continue to be a fact of many employees' lives. Collaboration is undoubtedly more difficult for remote workforces, but it is not impossible. Online collaboration tools are even more essential in this situation, as are planned interactions between members of various teams. Leaders must take special care to have one-on-one conversations with remote workers to understand their needs, challenges, and successes when it comes to cross-team collaboration. Our customers have also found that remote rapid improvement events can lead to successful process change and closer relationships between employees.
Cross-functional collaboration is about mutual commitment toward common goals and the joint effort necessary to achieve them. It is in every business leader's best interest to lay the foundation for a united approach to innovation and improvement. These strategies can help.