At its best, cross-functional collaboration tears down information silos and combines the strengths of your teams. At its worst, cross-functional collaboration leads to teams butting heads and rampant miscommunication.
The difference between success and failure?
Leveraging cross-functional collaboration frameworks that provide structure and guidance to a team’s way of working.
Effective cross-functional collaboration happens when people from different teams within an organization work together to complete a project. A cross-functional team brings more expertise and a wider variety of perspectives to a project.
However, working across teams can be a challenge. Even within the same company, teams might have different ways of interacting. To get them to collaborate successfully, you will need to help them along.
Sometimes people talk about collaboration like it’s a magical x-factor that you either have or you don’t. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Collaboration thrives when you give it direction and organization. A collaboration framework creates structure that drives clear communication, shared expectations, smooth workflows, and positive creative teamwork.
If you want to make your next project a great experience for everyone, it’s time to implement a cross-functional collaboration framework.
Establish why your team needs a cross-functional collaboration framework
You’ll be better equipped to help your team if you can structure your framework to lean into the strengths of your team. For that, you need to understand the benefits and challenges of cross-functional collaboration, so you can avoid some of the biggest pitfalls teams face during collaborative work.
Address the challenges cross-functional teams face
While teamwork is something humans have been doing since the beginning of time, it doesn't always go smoothly. It's inevitable that you'll experience some common challenges. Keep these common roadblocks in mind when you’re structuring your cross-functional project so your team can avoid them.
Teams working together for the first time may disagree with each other about what is most important during a project. Combat this by having everyone set project goals together as one team.
Lack of trust
Team members may not know each other well and may feel uncomfortable around each other as a result. Create opportunities for teams to build trust and get familiar with each other.
Start building trust and fostering psychological safety by running icebreakers before getting into the core objective of a meeting.
Resistance to new working strategies
Team members may reject new tools or systems if they are unfamiliar. Ease reluctance by holding a working session that familiarizes the team with the new tool. Afterward, slowly integrate it into recurring workflows so teams have low-risk opportunities to become more comfortable with the tool.
Not everyone works well in groups
To help team members who are more comfortable working independently, set clear guidelines for communication (which can also take place asynchronously) and make sure everyone uses them. That way, even those who prefer to do some work independently continue to work in step with the rest of the group.
Benefits of using cross-functional collaboration frameworks
Cross-functional work can be challenging, but it also combines the skill sets and different perspectives of each team to strengthen the project they’re working on.
Build a framework that will help you capitalize on these opportunities. The best collaboration framework is one that leans into the strengths of your team and helps amplify them. This can take the form of a team charter or working agreement.
Using the right cross-functional frameworks can help teams benefit from a few key outcomes:
Increased employee engagement
Collaboration builds camaraderie and creates connections throughout your company so you can focus on the big picture for your business.
Streamlined work processes
Collaboration requires building or agreeing on new processes together. The improvements your teams discover during this process can be applied throughout the organization.
Defined roles and goals
While you build your cross-functional framework, your teams will define their roles and goals (for the project and the broader organization).
Teams learn from each other when they collaborate, spreading successful strategies and gaining new perspectives.
Improved alignment across departments
When your teams work together, they learn more about each other’s day-to-day work, goals, and contributions. This reduces information silos and helps align everyone on company goals.
Set up a strong leadership framework
A successful cross-functional collaboration framework requires good project management and a strong team leader. This includes administrative tasks like meeting facilitation and delegation. However, a leader also needs to set project expectations, establish tools and communication standards, and check in regularly to resolve any conflicts.
Three key management practices will help your team’s cross-functional collaboration framework succeed.
Communicate clearly within and across teams
Transparency will help get buy-in from all the teams participating. Set up your cross-functional team for success by explaining who is involved in a project and why. Share as much information with your team as possible from the beginning.
When you introduce your framework, explain how to use it and why it will be helpful. Set a cadence for team updates — whether that's daily Slack updates or weekly emails for project updates.
Communication runs both ways. Set up a Mural to collect feedback or questions from your team that can be addressed async or during team meetings.
Set up organized project management
A cross-functional team needs effective project management to succeed. You will need to assign roles, set KPIs, establish goals, and communicate deadlines. Your team may benefit from a decentralized approach like collaborative project management, but it’s still the team leader’s responsibility to set up a structure where teams can collaborate.
It’s also your role to decide on the best project management methodology for the project. You might consider waterfall, agile, kanban, or scrum. Explain which approach you’ll be using and why, and make sure any teams that might not be familiar with the methodology get an intro to it.
Provide an impartial voice for conflict resolution
More voices mean more opportunities for conflict. A leader’s role in a cross-functional team is to find ways to address points of conflict when they come up. Most friction will simply be a result of differences, such as contradicting expectations or alternative ways of doing things.
Instead of focusing on right and wrong, help your teams agree on a way forward that focuses on the success of the project and their shared goals.
Lead with empathy and demonstrate positive and professional communication in your interactions. You can help your team succeed by modeling a solution-oriented and respectful attitude and listening to every team member with respect.
Build a sense of team unity
Icebreakers, team activities, and check-ins are important ways to build trust and have more productive meetings. They should be included as a regular part of your cross-team collaboration framework. While team unity is built out of so much more than just group activities, these habits will help start your team talking, interacting, and building a relationship.
Start your cross-functional collaboration with icebreakers
A simple icebreaker activity that invites conversation and interaction will help your team get comfortable collaborating as part of a bigger project.
Try these 25 virtual collaboration templates to help your team get to know each other.
Hold better meetings with warm-ups and energizers
To collaborate successfully, you need everyone to be engaged and contribute ideas. On a cross-functional team, different people may be coming to a meeting from very different work days. Team warm-ups or energizers will help unify teammates from different departments. Use templates like these 20 online warm-ups to bring the energy up for a productive meeting.
Keep your cross-functional team on track with check-ins
A cross-functional team might have fewer opportunities to touch base with each other organically than a single project team that works together day in and day out. Incorporate check-ins into your cross-functional collaboration framework to keep your teams aware of how their collaborators are doing. Regular check-ins as your team reaches important checkpoints will keep work on track and continue to build team unity throughout a project.
Establish a shared purpose with team agreements
Once the ice is broken, it’s time for your team to set the agreements that will make your cross-functional collaboration framework successful. During your kickoff meeting, have your team answer questions about their shared purpose, roles, and collaborative practices. Decide on cross-team goals and how to measure success.
Related: How to plan and lead a project kickoff meeting
Answering some strategic questions will get everyone on the same page, so they can start actively working together as a team.
- Why does our team exist? or What is our shared purpose?
Roles and responsibilities
- What roles are needed?
- What are each team member’s responsibilities?
- Who should take on each of those roles?
- Are there roles on separate teams that overlap in this cross-functional team? How do we want to balance those responsibilities?
- Do we have a facilitator and notetaker?
- How often will we meet?
- When will we use asynchronous communication?
- Are we in-person, remote, or hybrid? How do we accommodate that?
- What tools will we use as a team?
- What are our shared agreements around communication and teamwork?
- How do we resolve disagreements within our team?
- What are our team goals?
- What are our individual goals?
- What is our timeline for meeting those goals?
- How do we measure success in this project?
- What shared metrics do we want to track?
- What benchmarks do we want to use?
You can also use a project template to organize your meeting and build collaborative notes for your project kickoff.
Related: How to create a stakeholder map [templates & examples]
Create an organized system for task management
After you’ve agreed on your shared purpose, you’ll build an organized task management system that your entire cross-functional team can use together. While task management is always important, it is especially essential for a cross-functional team since it’s so much harder to stay organized. You have more stakeholders to hand off tasks, and it’s easy to lose track of progress across teams.
Digital tools like Jira or Azure DevOps are good solutions because they are functional for remote teams or in-person workers and can be referenced from anywhere and at any time. Project management tools also give your teams full visibility into what their collaborators are working on and how the project is progressing.
You also want to store all project documents in a centralized and accessible location so that all team members have equal access to the documents you’re working on.
Keep communication channels open
Decide on a method for communication and stick to it. You might create a dedicated Slack channel for a specific project and ask team members to keep conversation threads there so everyone has access to them.
What you don’t want is each individual team sliding back into communication habits that don’t include the teams they’re collaborating with. That will create silos and shut collaborators out of the important information they need to get your project done.
Take advantage of asynchronous communication as much as possible. Cross-functional collaboration requires teams to meet fairly frequently, so handling tasks asynchronously helps give everyone some breathing room between meetings.
Choose tools that make collaboration easier
Digital tools and apps that support collaboration are essential for your cross-functional framework to succeed. With the right collaboration tool, you can outline daily tasks and future objectives, organize projects and ideas in one convenient place, and create a record of all your meetings and brainstorming sessions as they happen.
Remote and hybrid collaboration can be especially challenging since interaction is limited to a screen. Using a shared whiteboard like Mural to support collaboration can bring peoples’ ideas out of their heads and into a shared framework. Team members can understand each other’s thoughts more clearly and build on each other’s ideas when they’re laid out visually.
A tool like Mural supports your collaborative framework and brings teams together. It encourages participation, innovation, productivity, and team alignment.
Use templates to kickstart cross-functional thinking
Host team activities — like the ones outlined in our cross-functional team plan template — to work through problems, build trust, and plan projects as a team. Or use Atlassian’s in-depth framework for four activities that cross-functional product teams can use to boost their alignment and productivity.
A concept poster helps your team better think through a problem, brainstorm possible solutions, and envision the end result of your project. This activity creates a living document that your cross-functional team can update as your project progresses.
Use this Mural template to tackle a specific problem, define the scope of your project, or guide your team’s collaborative work.
- Prep time: 60 minutes
- Run time: 60 minutes
- People: 4-8
This activity works best when your team has a specific idea or problem they want to engage with leadership around. It helps your leadership and project teams get better aligned and creates a safe space for innovation.
Create space for honest feedback and open discussion with this team activity.
- Prep time: 30 minutes
- Run time: 60 minutes
- People: 4-6
Customer Journey Mapping
Focusing on the customer’s experience of your product or service can help your team understand their product better and innovate from a customer’s perspective.
This activity focuses on a specific persona, mapping customer journey touchpoints by stage.
- Prep time: 15 minutes
- Run time: 90 minutes
- People: 4-8
5 Whys Analysis
Using the “5 Whys” activity helps your team avoid acting on assumptions and dive into the deeper problems they’re encountering instead of focusing on surface-level symptoms.
This activity uses the “5 Whys” to uncover the root cause of a problem as a team.
- Prep time: 5 minutes
- Run time: 30-60 minutes
- People: 3-8
Use your cross-functional collaboration framework to build a more collaborative company culture
Building a strong cross-functional team framework will help your entire business become more productive and more aligned. The structure your teams build together won’t just be used during one specific project. Teams will get comfortable communicating and working together, and cross-functional collaboration will continue long past the project’s conclusion.
Every collaboration effort helps your team work together better. Your role as a facilitator is to get the lessons they learn and the structures you build together down on paper so you can use them in the future.
Mural makes cross-functional collaboration easy, helping teams conduct better brainstorming, improve processes, and speed up decision-making. Design and lead more efficient and productive meetings with facilitation features like timer, private mode, and anonymous voting — and take advantage of asynchronous collaboration to get more done with fewer meetings.
Create a Free Forever account and get started with one of Mural’s free templates, which you can edit and share with unlimited members — making it easy to get every team member involved and engaged.
About the author
About the authors