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The Secret to Improving Cross-Functional Collaboration

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Pamela DeLoatch

Even if you’re not an Elton John fan, no doubt you’ve heard many of his songs. In fact, I dare you to listen to the song “Bennie and the Jets” and not sing every word to the chorus. An impossible task, indeed. But did you know that Elton John doesn’t write those famous lyrics (and that Daniel isn’t Elton’s brother?). 

For more than half a century, the legendary singer has relied on poet and lyricist, Bernie Taupin to write his words. After Taupin finishes with a piece, Elton John puts those words to music. This arrangement has worked well, with the duo selling 255 million records worldwide.

Often, when we think of cross-functional collaboration we envision a similar ease of process in a business environment with each team member doing their part. 

But the truth is that collaboration isn’t always that easy. It can be challenging to create a culture where team members raise a variety of ideas and concepts, where they’re encouraged to sincerely and passionately debate those ideas, and where, in the end, the team lands on the best solution. However, despite the difficulties of managing true collaboration, research shows that when your team collaborates well, you get stronger results and a better business outcome.

Caution: Collaboration is Not Groupthink

When everyone in a group thinks the same way or is hesitant to express a different opinion, fruitful ideas don’t always get discussed, and unpopular ideas don’t always get dismissed. A look back to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion or the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion shows the dangers of having a roomful of yes-men and women. In both cases, the pressure for group members to agree overrode individual concerns. Had those concerns been fully recognized, the U.S. government and NASA may have avoided catastrophe.

Recently, in less dire circumstances, we’ve seen established brands like Pepsi and Dove release tone-deaf ads, and we have to ask, what were they thinking? Most likely, they had too many like-minded contributors sitting around the conference table who didn’t have or didn’t offer a differing opinion. 

Collaboration Requires Diversity and Inclusion

To avoid groupthink and to get the best business results, organizations are learning that they must have diverse and inclusive teams working collaboratively and cross-functionally. Research shows that diverse teams bring greater creativity and innovation, make better and faster decisions, are more engaged, and have better retention. For example:

Inclusive companies are almost 2x more likely to be market leaders.
• The more diverse, the better: teams that are diverse based on gender, age, and geography made better decisions than all-male teams. 
• Companies with more diverse teams have 19 percent more revenue due to innovation.
• When people feel their organization support diversity, employees feel more included and their ability to innovate increases by 83 percent.

What’s the magic of diverse teams? People from different backgrounds bring contrasting perspectives allowing for more ideas so that you can focus on the most innovative or actionable ones. As a bonus, when teams know that various aspects will be presented in a meeting, members show up more prepared to discuss and debate ideas.

But having people of diverse backgrounds invited to the table isn’t enough. That’s just diversity without the inclusion. Indoctrinating them in the process is essential. They have to participate in the conversation, with their ideas listened to, and if worthy, implemented. 

Improving Performance Through Horizontal Collaboration

Diversity applies to a variety of aspects, including—but not limited to gender, ethnicity, race, age, or ability status. But that’s just the beginning of creating a team that brings different experiences and perspectives. Even as organizations strive to create a diverse and inclusive population, companies can increase these aspects within teams through cross-functional collaboration. 

Teams often operate in silos. Maybe the marketing department wants to enhance the company’s brand with new content, but doesn’t consult with the sales or customer service departments to find out what pain points customers want to address most—which means the message may not resonate as well with the audience. Or maybe HR wants to implement new technology to streamline processes but doesn’t include stakeholders from other departments when planning.

Knowing how critical it is to develop diverse and inclusive teams, you’d think it would be natural for leaders to make sure cross-functional collaboration occurs regularly. A recent article in Harvard Business Review points out that relationships between silos are more likely to result in better customer solutions. One of the authors found that companies with more cross-boundary collaboration have greater customer loyalty and higher margins, yet leaders still spend most of their time on relationships within their own vertical function.

Why don’t organizations invest in cross-functional collaboration more often? Forming a team for a project can take time away from the employee’s original job. A cross-functional team can be territorial or have difficulty communicating. But despite the challenges, HBR points out that cross-silo teams also:

• Act as a bridge across cultures
• Bring people together to create mutual understanding
• Give employees opportunities to develop new roles and experiences
• Empower people to ask questions
• Help employees develop empathy
• Encourage employee networking and relationships across the organization

Encouraging Healthy Interactions

Having teams with different perspectives creates the groundwork for collaboration, but the environment also has to allow for that quality interaction. Set the expectations that you want original thinking and honest opinions. Establish group rules on how to disagree respectfully. Make sure everyone has a chance to be heard. 

For example, employees who are calling in from remote locations don’t always get noticed during meetings. Also, some employees like to think on their feet, while others prefer to let their ideas marinate before sharing. This can impact who shares the majority of the time and which ideas get air-time versus getting lost in the abyss. 

Embedding Cross-Silo Experiences In Your Culture

Getting people from different departments to work together doesn’t usually happen by accident. It has to be structured, generally around a critical need. This could be a 24-hour hackathon or a multi-month project. Support from senior leaders is crucial, so that team members feel empowered to participate.  

Make cross-functional experiences part of performance expectations. If your team member is serving on a cross-functional team, include that work in the employee’s performance management goals and discussions. Likewise, if employees from other functions are working on a project through your department, provide feedback and recognition—and encourage other members of the team to do the same.

While Bernie Taupin and Elton John’s collaborative efforts have been hugely successful, real-life business cross-functional collaborations are much more complicated and often more convoluted than Crocodile Rock. But when done thoughtfully and consistently, bringing together groups like cross-silo teams allows sweet notes of success to waft throughout your organization.

Pamela DeLoatch

Pamela DeLoatch is a B2B technology writer specializing in creating marketing content for the HR industry. With a background as an HR generalist and specialist, she writes about the employee experience, engagement, diversity, HR leadership, culture and technology. Follow Pamela on Twitter @pameladel.

Image Credit: Shutterstock