3 Cs guiding successful cross-functional teams

Communication, collaboration, coordination: The 3 Cs guiding successful cross-functional teams

Main illustration: Mallory Lucille

teamwaaaaIt takes a wide variety of skills, perspectives, and expertise to build a next-generation product.

Many companies depend on strong cross-functional teamwork and relationships to build a product that delivers real value to their customers. Intercom is no exception.

What is cross-functional teamwork?

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.

The phrase “cross-functional” is most commonly used to describe a team made up of people with different functions or skills.

“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”

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,  timing, and 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. This requires a comprehensive framework for considering how teams interact with one another – we have learned the hard way just how crucial that is.

Why cross-functional teamwork matters to us

While on the Product Education team, we created help documentation, videos, webinars, and messaging to educate our customers. This meant working closely with nearly every team across our company, from product teams to customer support to sales teams.

Much of our work relied heavily upon information from other functions, and its success depended on other teams sharing and utilizing the content we create – good cross-functional teamwork practices are essential.

There are three universal benefits to focusing on everyday cross-functional excellence:

  1. 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.
  2. It helps resolve or avoid problems because we either have the information we need or we know exactly where to find it.
  3. It helps us 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 practices for cross-functional teamwork?

The three Cs of cross-functional teamwork

Working with multiple teams simultaneously 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 teamwork 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 of each others’ progress and direction.

3 Cs of cross-functional teams

Each of these actions are integral to effective cross-functional teamwork. 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 three Cs 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 most, and the types of work you do with each team.

“Laying out your current cross-functional practices allows you to start forming your best ideas”

You’ll also begin to find connections – and gaps – in how you work with other teams, and spot ways to improve your processes.

Laying out your current cross-functional practices allows you to start forming 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, 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. Have each team member select one or two big impact ideas and quick wins.

After running an ideas session, you’ll find that there are clear and easy ways to elevate your cross-functional teamwork capabilities – the value you’ll get from running these sessions will be 10x the time they take.

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.

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 your 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

Building great cross-functional temawork 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 mold, 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.

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