Main illustration: Mallory Lucille
The phrase “cross-functional” is most commonly used to describe a team made up of people with different functions or skills.
At Intercom for example, our product teams include designers, programmers and product managers, unique roles working together as one. Or you might hear the term used when teams from different parts of a business work together on a big project, like the launch of a new product or release.
Every team needs to consider itself as working cross-functionally all the time
In both of these situations, a program or product manager takes the lead, operating as a kind of conductor, making sure all the instruments are in harmony, and ensuring everyone knows their role, their timing and their goal.
But what about when there is no big project or goal to work towards, and no conductor to call the tune?
For the most part, teams and functions go back to working in isolation, punctuated by ad hoc Slack chats, emails, coffee encounters and the odd company-wide presentation.
It is possible, however, to work more cross-functionally on an everyday basis.
The reality is that for organizations to be truly effective, every team needs to consider itself as working cross-functionally all the time, not just on a project by project basis – it just requires a more comprehensive framework for considering how teams interact with one another. We have learned the hard way just how crucial that is.
Why working cross-functionally matters to us
As the Product Education team, we create help documentation, videos, webinars and messaging to educate our customers. This means we need to work closely with nearly every team across our company, from the product teams to customer support to sales teams. Much of our work relies heavily upon information from other functions, and the success of our work depends on other teams sharing and utilizing the content we create. Good cross-functional practices are essential.
There are three universal benefits to focusing on everyday cross-functional excellence:
- It makes your work more efficient, by preventing isolated colleagues from working on the same things, working on the wrong things or working with outdated information.
- It helps resolve or avoid problems, by either already having the information we need or knowing exactly where to find it.
- It helps make better decisions, informed with the wider context of other teams’ priorities, roadmaps and issues.
When cross-functional practices break down it results in misalignment, varied interpretations and mixed results. So how can you build great everyday cross-functional practice for your team?
The 3 Cs of cross-functional work
Working simultaneously with multiple teams across your company can stretch you to your limits. On the Product Education team we needed a way to navigate – and mitigate – hectic periods of high cross-functional activity. During these periods, dozens of moving parts need be pieced together in a short space of time.
To negotiate these demanding periods, we designed a basic framework to help us gain visibility into, and ultimately scale, how we work with other teams. However, we quickly realised those principles could be broadly applied to all cross-functional work – not just the busy periods.
To create a framework, we divided cross-functional activities into three related activities:
- Communication – teams need to be able to efficiently talk, ask questions, give answers, provide context and offer guidance to one another.
- Collaboration – teams need agreed methods and common tools for working on shared tasks.
- Coordination – teams need visibility on each others’ progress and direction.
Each of these actions are integral to effective cross-functional work. Of course, communication, collaboration and coordination aren’t totally distinct activities, but framing your work in this way will bring clarity and help you understand and improve your processes with other teams.
Upping your cross-functional game
To map out what your team is and isn’t doing, make a list of all the ways you currently work with other teams, and which of the 3 C’s each activity falls under. Here are some examples of how to distinguish these activities:
- Communication: Meetings, presentations, emails and messages.
- Collaboration: Creating content with other teams or working together on group projects.
- Coordination: Ongoing cross-team processes, like tracking bugs via a GitHub repo, or updating a Trello board that tracks a project’s progress.
By mapping these processes, you’ll be able to visualize how much you work with other teams, which teams you work with the most, and what types of work you do with each team.
You’ll find connections – and gaps – in how you work with other teams
You’ll also begin to find connections – and gaps – in how you work with other teams. At this point, you’ll begin to see ways to improve how you work with other teams.
With your current cross-functional practices clearly laid out, you can start to form your best ideas. As you gather ideas, you should bucket them into Communication, Collaboration and Coordination to better see their impact.
You’ll probably have lots of ideas, so whittle down your list and identify the best ones, and divide them into two sections – big impact and quick wins. As much as you’d like to implement every decent idea, be realistic with how many of the new ideas you can implement. Have each team member select one or two big impact ideas and quick wins.
If you’re having trouble getting started, here are some impactful cross-functional ideas:
- Create a ‘How to work with our team’ doc – this will have multiple benefits. As well as helping other teams to successfully work with you and understand your processes, it’ll also become a valuable resources for your team’s new hires (communication).
- Run cross-team sessions on specific topics – let your various teams run info-sharing sessions, so they can collaborate and educate each other (collaboration).
- Create a team report for other teams – this is an easy way to improve other teams’ visibility of your work (coordination).
- If your team gets a lot of ad-hoc requests, formalize the request process – this will allow you to better organize and prioritize the requests you receive from other teams (coordination).
After running an ideas session, you’ll find that there are clear and easy ways of dramatically elevating your cross-functional capabilities. The value you can get from running sessions will be 10x the time it takes to run them. Your team can zoom out of the normal week-to-week tasks, capture a holistic view of the team and create new ways of working that could benefit your entire organization, both immediately and in the long run.
Challenge the status quo
Creating great cross-functional processes is a two way street – for continuous impact, your efforts need to be reciprocated by all the teams you work with. Of course, you can only control what your team does. But if you start by looking at your own work, and seek new ways to communicate, collaborate and coordinate, you can make it easier for other teams to work with you, and vice versa. You’ll also grow your team’s overall impact within the company over time.
Keep a critical eye on your cross-functional processes – don’t just do things because that’s how they were done before. Break the mould, try new things and challenge the status quo. You might find new ways to make teams work better together. If you can establish new cross-functional practices that work, other teams will follow your lead.