Improving cross-communication: Helpful tips for multi-team collaboration

The modern workplace is characterized by more than just one single identifiable team. Often, it requires many hands joining together to properly develop a product, a service, or even an internal operational process, towards a workable and deliverable state. For example, consumer packaged goods need marketing teams to convey their product’s key messages, and logistical units to better plan out the operational side of delivering said product. The same company might require finance control managers to better allocate resources as well as product strategists that can help define business placement within a given industry.

The same can be said for a myriad of different industries in today’s economy, as companies deepen their understanding and leveraging of expertise across business units. But before they can get to work with each other, teams must understand and develop the proper communication skills in order to work cross-functionally across different teams. This skill is called “cross-communication”, which will be discussed in better detail below alongside tips on best practices so that managers and team leaders can better foster a cross-functional communication flow.

What is Cross-Communication?

There might be some readers who are more used to older organizational structures that focused on largely “siloed” departmental set-ups. These more traditional team structures kept teams largely independent of each other, only collaborating whenever their tasks overlapped with another team’s main function. Often, teams would just be passing processes through this top-down approach, creating efficiencies in the clarity of responsibilities but often running into issues regarding inefficiencies of bureaucracy as well as low visibility across tasks.

As organizations began to mature in their development, they began to adopt more cross-functional practices that necessitated cross-communication. Forbes writers Christine Organ and Cassie Bottorff describe these cross-functional teams as “groups of people from various departments in an organization—such as marketing, product development, quality assurance, sales and finance—who work together to achieve a common goal.

This means that teams that were once separated solely based on their function are now organized in such a manner that they are often grouped to fulfill a specific business need. These set-ups can range from a limited duration of specific projects to more long-lasting organizational structures.

Benefits of Cross-Functional Teams

The shift towards a cross-functional system of working across members with different areas of expertise didn’t just happen without good incentives to do so. The traditional method of independent departments, what business academics call “Functional Structures”, benefits from over centralized decision-making and a clear idea of who will need to make the decisions moving forward. But this can also hamper progress as the bureaucracy involved in getting approvals from different teams can slow down work and lessen the primary team’s ability to leverage ideas from other functional units.

That’s why the decentralized structure of a cross-functional team came into play, something which companies like Johnson & Johnson have implemented to great success. These cross-functional teams carry several benefits to their implementation, the first of which is their ability to motivate greater innovation in their participants. As workers are more exposed to different areas of thinking and unique perspectives, the group as a whole can often produce new ways of addressing issues and develop novel solutions better informed through different company touchpoints.

Another key benefit is the clear increase in efficiency regarding projects moving through a cross-functional organizational structure versus one that goes through a traditional process. While the latter will have the project moving through single departments for processing before being moved on to the next, cross-functional teams allow you to capture and address potential hurdles before you move too far into the process. This saves time and resources in getting projects off the ground through the combined effort of several stakeholder partners.

A cross-functional structure also allows for better team awareness of the higher-level implications of their projects. With a central, functional approach, organizational initiatives can be more difficult to implement as individual departments may not see the exact benefit of utilizing the change towards their own teams. Integrating a cross-functional structure allows broader organizational shifts to become more of a priority for each team as it spreads the responsibility toward more stakeholders.

Tips on Improving Cross-Communication

Despite the very real benefits that cross-communication has for your company’s overall efficiency and effectiveness, not every firm is ready or equipped to manage such a shift toward a cross-functional structure. Benham Tabrizi, in an article for HBR, noted that as much as 75% of cross-functional structures in companies are “dysfunctional” due to a combination of “unclear governance, by a lack of accountability, by goals that lack specificity, and by organizations’ failure to prioritize the success of cross-functional projects”.

But achieving cross-functional collaboration hinges the most on your team’s ability to properly communicate with each other. All the items described above require a trained understanding of multi-functional capabilities as well as a collaborative mentality to work with people that hold varying perspectives distinct from one’s own. With that, there are several key ways that companies can begin instilling that desired behavior and communication skills within their workforce.

Utilize One Central Form of Communication

One concrete way of establishing, maintaining, and even further developing cross-communication is to properly manage the channels in which teams communicate with each other. Today’s business landscape utilizes a litany of communication channels that information can easily be lost between members that simply prioritize one platform over another.

To better ensure that discussions occur frequently and that team members can always reach out to the right person at all times, establish one central form of communication that all your employees can use to discuss work matters. This can be your standard communication method but can also extend to other more instantaneous platforms that offer quick messages without the need to formalize in an email.

This also helps your team identify which information might be more critical to a specific cross-functional task. Having all discussions taking place in one central location regarding a specific project can allow everyone better visibility, agility, and cross-collaboration whenever they need it. The challenge is to find balance between efficiency and all the tools available to work as a team.

Lastly, ending on a similar note to our first tip is to utilize and leverage technology to better share information across cross-functional team members. Communication remains a core tenant in proper cross-functional work and without properly informed communication, teams risk falling into the trap of inefficient lines of discussion that ultimately end up with no actual decision made on any given topic.

It’s not an uncommon scenario and one that plagues many companies in today’s rapidly changing work environment. Gratton and Erickson expound on this, discussing that:

Working together virtually has a similar impact on teams. The majority of those we studied had members spread among multiple locations—in several cases, in as many as 13 sites around the globe. But as teams became more virtual, we saw, cooperation also declined, unless the company had taken measures to establish a collaborative culture.

But with virtual work comes the further development of better technologies that allow for almost instantaneous information sharing over vast distances. Utilize shared virtual drop boxes, cloud computing, and even live-file collaboration platforms so that you can keep the work going on regardless of where they might be and what role they might be inhabiting.

Establish Key Performance Indicators

The trouble with some cross-functional teams is that performance is often linked to their individual departmental or functional tasks that might not have any bearing on the particular project they are working on. As such, there are scenarios in which it becomes difficult to correctly measure the progress on a specific project across members that might be focusing on different aspects of the initiative.

For example, a product launch may have a multi-layered approach in that it requires R&D, marketing, sales, and finance to properly work together to develop an adequate strategy and go-to-market plan. Each cross-functional team member might be tempted to look at their respective expertise area as indicators of project progress without exactly looking at the entire project’s status from other perspectives as well.

Curb this cross-functional performance confusion by properly establishing key performance indicators towards project milestones that better indicate its progress levels. This allows everyone to work better in collaboration towards specific milestones that go beyond their respective roles. This also allows your team to communicate about specific areas that the team should be focused on, using language that the team shares instead of technical terms that might be more appropriate for those working in similar functions.

Clarify Roles and Responsibilities

It’s absolutely key that in cross-functional teams the roles of individual members are properly defined, understood, and leveraged by each member to achieve the current project goal. This aids immensely with communication as it essentially sets the cadence on who to talk to (and who not to talk to) for specific tasks and guidance regarding the project. Without clarity in roles, members will likely overlap on responsibilities and create inefficiencies on projects that require multiple stakeholder inputs.

Properly defined roles also have another benefit: a better navigation in ambiguous situations. Often complex projects will not have a defined method of addressing particular issues, requiring creativity and expertise across functions to properly tackle. With defined roles, communication can be better facilitated to see where each member can better contribute.

Lynda Gratton and Tamara Erickson, for HBR, quote a specific case in which the BBC employed more than 100 teams that worked on the 2006 World Cup, working from promotions to the news. Despite the chance of confusion, Gratton and Erickson noted that the BBC “teams scored among the highest in our sample concerning the clarity with which members viewed their own roles and the roles of others. Every team was composed of specialists who had deep expertise in their given function, and each person had a clearly defined role”.

Assign Designated SPOCs for Each Function

Large and complex companies can have equally complex leadership structures. As these companies begin adopting more cross-functional working processes, it’s likely that the very same teams mimic these complex team structures as managers and functional experts begin populating these cross-communicative teams.

Confusion can arise here, though, as leaders begin overlapping and working on different projects and end up not understanding who to go to for key information and decision-making. Tabrizi notes that having accountable leaders for each function can help empower decision-making and information. With a designated Single Point of Contact (also called “SPOC”), teams have a clear understanding of their go-to-person if they have any questions.

This can help mid-level managers better understand what project key aspects are to make information much more readily available to functional roles that require data to move forward. Tabrizi discusses a specific situation where at “IBM Global Services, for instance, there are occasions when mid-level managers step in with the authority to make decisions. At IBM, mid-level managers also serve as the first line of defense for cross-functional escalation issues.

Final Thoughts on Cross-Communication

It’s easy to forget that companies can work together in more ways than one. By leveraging the perspectives of others, you can better create more innovative and efficient solutions than you would have had worked independently of other departments. As Paul Leinwand, Cesare Mainardi and Art Kleiner note in their article for HBR,

When you build a few critical cross-functional capabilities—and scale them—you break free of the trap of trying to be world-class at everything but mastering nothing. Don’t treat benchmarking as the path to success. Instead, compete on the select few capabilities that deliver on your strategy, and instill them everywhere you do business.

So look for ways to continually improve communication even beyond this list and you can find more creative ways of addressing complex problems moving forward. 

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