min read

Cross-Functional Collaboration Overview + Examples

Article by 
Cascade Team
  —  Published 
September 26, 2023
January 20, 2024

Cross-functional collaboration is the secret sauce that fuels innovation and efficiency in modern organizations. It's not just a buzzword; it's a strategic imperative for success.

Picture it: Sales, marketing, finance, operations, and IT all sitting at the same table, working in harmony rather than isolation.

But without the right technological tools and organizational capabilities, cross-functional teams can struggle. According to research by Deloitte, the main roadblocks are team alignment and a culture that doesn't fully support such collaboration.

In this article, we'll delve into the core principles of cross-functional collaboration, its tangible benefits, common challenges, and provide practical insights to help you smoothly implement cross-functional teams within your organization. Along the way, we'll showcase real-world examples of companies that have harnessed the power of this approach and share their successful strategies.

We'll also illustrate how Cascade can assist you in seamlessly implementing cross-functional collaboration within your organization.

#1 Strategy Execution Platform Tear down organizational silos.  Visualize the relationships between your outcomes and strategic vision to  pinpoint misalignment.   Learn how. Book a demo!

What Is Cross-Functional Collaboration?

Cross-functional collaboration is a strategic approach within organizations where individuals from different departments or functional areas come together to work collectively on projects or initiatives. This collaboration involves breaking down the traditional silos that exist within organizations and encourages employees with diverse expertise and skill sets to collaborate toward a common goal.

In essence, cross-functional collaboration is about fostering teamwork and communication between team members who bring different perspectives, experiences, and knowledge to the table. This collaborative effort leverages the strengths of each department to achieve shared objectives. It’s not exclusive to cross-functional projects but can be a continuous effort to drive innovation, efficiency, and adaptability organization-wide.

Example of a cross-functional organization structure
Example of a cross-functional organization structure

3 Reasons You Need Cross-Functional Collaboration

Why do companies need cross-functional collaboration today more than ever before?

Here are a few possible reasons:

1. Need for organizational alignment

Achieving alignment across an organization can be challenging, especially when different departments or functions operate in isolation—and even more challenging for remote teams working across the globe with different time zones.

Cross-team collaboration serves as a mechanism for ensuring that all teams are working toward the same objectives and aligned with the big picture. When teams collaborate, they share a common understanding of the organization's goals, values, and strategic direction.

2. Increasing the value of customer experience

In today's customer-centric business environment, providing an exceptional experience is absolutely essential. Cross-functional collaboration takes center stage in achieving this goal by bringing together teams from marketing, customer support, product development, and other departments, fostering a shared understanding of customer needs.

Breaking down departmental barriers allows organizations to align messaging throughout every touchpoint with the customer and deliver a consistent and personalized message at every interaction point.

3. Gaining a competitive edge through accelerated innovation

When individuals from different departments work together, they bring unique insights, skills, and experiences to the table. This diversity fuels creativity and promotes innovative thinking. Ideas that might not have surfaced within departmental silos are more likely to emerge in cross-functional teams.

These fresh ideas can lead to the development of groundbreaking products, services, and solutions, giving organizations a competitive edge in the market.

Benefits of Cross-Functional Collaboration

It can be a bit overwhelming to create a team that involves people from multiple departments. But when you do so, it’s totally worth it.

So, what benefits do cross-functional teams bring to the company?

1. Greater business agility

Cross-functional teams stand out for their agility and versatility. Armed with a diverse skill set, they thrive in dynamic settings and move swiftly, free from the delays associated with inter-departmental dependencies. They can promptly address challenges, initiate problem-solving, and respond to setbacks, often reducing the cycle time in new product development.

2. Improved employee engagement

According to research by Gallup, employee engagement has reached its lowest level since 2015—only 32% of employees surveyed claimed to be engaged with their work.

Transitioning to team-focused structures can address this issue by fostering better team relationships and workplace dynamics. Cross-functional teams break down silos and bridge gaps, nurturing engagement by involving individuals from various company levels and reducing the divide between management and team members.

3. Enhanced insights

Research suggests that working in silos and not sharing data with people from other departments can cost a company close to $8,000 per day in wasteful expenses. Cross-functional collaboration can help encourage knowledge sharing and introduce great ideas.

For example, in an organization developing a new product, a project manager could assemble a cross-functional team comprising engineers, designers, marketers, and customer support reps. Their collaboration will bring comprehensive insights into all the important aspects of the product from the start.

money executives estimate their business wastes study graphic

4. Superior communication skills & team development

Cross-functional collaboration promotes effective communication skills and team development by bringing together a diverse group of people with different perspectives. Through collaborative feedback and conflict resolution, team members refine their communication skills, while learning from others with different skill sets—making them more versatile in their roles.

The alignment around clear, shared objectives fosters purpose-driven communication and collaborative work, allowing the organization to create a high-performing team and build trust among its members.

6. Enhanced management skills

Managing cross-functional teams challenges leadership skills, since the leader may not be the expert in every domain, but needs to be able to manage people with different areas of expertise.

Leaders must cultivate their ability to work harmoniously with team members from diverse backgrounds and styles, enabling others to take the lead when their specialized knowledge is needed for effective decision-making.

📚 Recommended read: Why democratic leadership brings better strategic results

7. Removing stereotypes & diversity issues

Cross-functional teams bring different departments together, fostering understanding of each other's strengths and challenges. For instance, when a tech team meets a non-tech team, they recognize each other’s struggles and capitalize on their knowledge.

This shared perspective breaks down stereotypes and promotes conflict resolution. Additionally, diverse teams, with varied ages, backgrounds, and opinions, bring innovative ideas to the forefront.

📚 Recommended read: Why Diversity Matters for Strategic Execution

Common Challenges Of Cross-Functional Collaboration

We’ve seen the benefits of cross-functional teams! So, what’s not to like?

Well... According to a study by The Harvard Business Review, approximately 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional, and they’re unsuccessful on at least three of five criteria:

  • Budget Adherence: They struggle to meet strategic budget targets, often due to differing departmental priorities and resource allocation conflicts.
  • Staying on schedule: This can be a challenge, as coordinating initiatives and timelines among different teams can lead to delays.
  • Specification compliance: Ensuring projects follow specifications can be difficult when various departments have their own interpretations and objectives.
  • Consumer expectations: Achieving customer satisfaction can be a tough task when different teams have varying perspectives on what constitutes a satisfactory outcome.
  • Alignment with business objectives: Maintaining alignment with overall business objectives can be challenging, as different departments may have conflicting priorities or varying interpretations of the organization's goals.

But before you give up on the idea of cross-functional collaboration, let's dig into why these challenges arise.

Cross-functional teams often struggle because the organization lacks a systemic approach.

Teams grapple with ambiguous governance, accountability deficits, vaguely defined goals, and an organizational failure to prioritize the success of cross-functional projects. This could lead to a lack of trust in the team and in the project, and ultimately to diminished team morale, increased project risks, missed deadlines, budget overruns, and a failure to achieve desired outcomes.

Cross-Functional Collaboration: Best Practices & Tips

So, how can you steer clear of these challenges? Here are 10 actionable tips to guide you toward success:

  1. Establish clear governance: Clearly outline decision-making processes, workflows, roles, and responsibilities. Ensure that cross-functional teams have a designated team leader responsible for driving the project to success.
  2. Allocate adequate resources: Ensure access to the necessary resources, including budget, manpower, and technology, to execute the project effectively.
  3. Set specific metrics and goals: Define specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) KPIs for the project. The team’s goals and objectives need to be clear to provide a roadmap and measure progress.
  4. End-to-end ownership: Appoint an end-to-end owner who oversees the entire specific project lifecycle. This person is responsible for coordinating efforts across departments and ensuring that the project stays on track.
  5. Clear communication channels: Establish transparent and efficient communication channels for cross-functional teams. Use collaboration tools—like Slack or MS Teams—to facilitate day-to-day information sharing.
  6. Cross-training and team-building: Foster cross-training among team members to cultivate a shared understanding of each other's roles and expertise. This promotes collaboration and team integration.
  7. Regular check-ins: Schedule regular team meetings and check-ins to monitor progress, address challenges, and provide in-depth updates. These meetings should be structured and focused on problem-solving.
  8. Feedback loops: Create feedback mechanisms for team members to share insights, raise concerns, and suggest improvements. A culture of constructive feedback enhances collaboration.
  9. Leadership support: Secure support from organizational leadership to champion cross-functional initiatives. Leaders should endorse the importance of collaboration and set an example.
  10. Celebrate success: Acknowledge and celebrate important milestones to motivate and reward team members for their contributions. Positive reinforcement fosters a sense of accomplishment and encourages future collaboration.
#1 Strategy Execution Platform Tear down organizational silos.  Visualize the relationships between your outcomes and strategic vision to  pinpoint misalignment.   Learn how. Book a demo!

Examples Of Cross-Functional Collaboration

Successful companies don’t just build cross-functional teams overnight. They embed cross-functionality in their culture, building a truly inclusive workplace.

Let’s take a look at some examples:

1. Northwestern Mutual Life

Northwestern Mutual Life, an American financial services mutual organization, is at the forefront of cross-functional team development. Initially following a traditional model, the company engaged individuals whose roles were directly tied to a project's requirements.

However, they've evolved. Today, Northwestern is pioneering by appointing at least one “non-stakeholder” to each cross-functional team.

According to Colleen Stenholt, Director of HR at Northwestern, “One of our goals is to break out of the box, and the stakeholders are the people who built the box."

🔀 How cross-functional teams help Northwestern Mutual Life

Northwestern Mutual's early adoption of cross-functional collaboration included members from financial, investment, and actuarial departments, pioneering the study of computers' influence on business. This effort led to the establishment of one of the first information systems departments, giving the company a competitive edge during the computerization era.

Currently, the company boasts cross-functional teams in almost every aspect of its organization.

🔑 Key takeaways

Every stakeholder must be represented in cross-functional teams, even those who don’t seem to be directly involved in the project. Stakeholders are the people who can benefit or lose from the work of the team. So, ensuring their involvement is crucial, as they can influence a team's success.

Business leadership, management, and key cross-functional team members have the responsibility of effectively communicating the team's significance, objectives, and priorities to all stakeholders.

2. Apple

Apple diverges from the traditional autocratic leadership model, granting every team member the freedom to endorse ideas, challenge opinions, and collectively refine their thinking for optimal solutions.

“To see all the cross-functional work and the relationships we’ve forged come together in one product makes me incredibly proud,” says Jason, Wireless Software Engineering Manager at Apple.

Apple's commitment to enhancing the user experience extends beyond the surface, involving teams responsible for streamlining product journeys through the supply chain and sales channels.

They work cross-functionally with other Apple teams to discover ways to enhance processes, such as making it simple for consumers to order a product online and pick it up in a store.

🔀 How cross-functional teams help Apple

Apple employed a cross-functional team to create the revolutionary iPhone. They brought together experts from different departments across the business to start what was to become a smartphone revolution.

Today, it’s renowned globally for its innovations in hardware, software, and services. Apple has grown from 8,000 workers and $7 billion in revenue in 1997, to 164,000 employees and $394 billion in revenue in 2022.

The main reasons behind Apple’s massive success? Its organizational culture supporting cross-functional collaboration and its leadership model.

Source: Statista

🔑 Key takeaways

Collaboration is more than just teamwork, it means passionate and collaborative discussions. Employees in retail, hardware, or marketing teams may focus on different matters, but the principles of respectful and honest discussion stay the same.

Cross-functional collaboration is critical as no one team is responsible for a product or a service on its own. You may need dozens of specialist teams for even a single module of a new product. Yet every team works with a common motive: to create an amazing customer experience.

📚 Recommended read: How Apple Became the Top Non-Corporate Tech Brand

3. Nokia

Nokia's commitment to cross-functional collaboration is evident in its recruitment strategy, which favors candidates with experience in leading or working within cross-functional teams across multiple locations. The company also embraces agile development principles in the day-to-day operations of its cross-functional teams.

🔀 How cross-functional teams help Nokia

Nokia Bell Labs' executives championed cross-functionality by assembling scientists and engineers, each with distinct skill sets. This initiative cultivated a risk-tolerant organizational culture that recognized failure as a pivotal facet of growth. This led to the invention of the vacuum tube, a technology that revolutionized countless industries.

Today, Nokia remains a trailblazer in telecommunications technology, with its network infrastructure business achieving remarkable success (€10.0B in revenue; 14% YoY). This remarkable growth is fueled by the surging demand for Nokia's cutting-edge 5G and cloud networking solutions.

Source: Nokia's Network Infrastructure progress update (June 2023)

🔑 Key takeaways

The more individuals across your various departments understand the basics of each other’s specialties, the more prolific your entire business will be. It's an added advantage for any business when, for instance, the sales team understands how the finance department manages payments to suppliers.

4. Cisco

“Cisco has created a bridge between siloed architecture experts and customer-facing staff in diverse groups across the company,” says Sean Worthington, Vice President of IT, Operational Excellence and Service Enablement, Cisco.

Cisco, a prime example of fostering cross-functional teams, transformed its organizational structure from a command and control system to a collaborative and organic work environment.

Their HR strategy embraces lower-level manager input in top-level decision-making, nurturing a collaborative culture. This shift enables its teams and divisions to strategize collectively, facilitating the sharing of new product developments and technology across the organization.

🔀 How cross-functional teams help Cisco

Cisco's cross-functional collaboration bears fruit, with the company being one of the top router security vendors in 2022. Their approach fuels the development of innovative products and enables them to swiftly introduce groundbreaking products to the market, outpacing competitors.

Source: Cisco 2022 report

🔑 Key takeaways

Cisco's approach to cross-functional collaboration embodies a multidirectional approach, avoiding a strict top-down or bottom-up model. It ensures that ideas don't solely originate from executives or top management, fostering engagement across all organizational levels and promoting the creation of fresh ideas.

📚 Recommended read: How Cisco Became a Networking and Cloud Computing Powerhouse

Achieve Effective Cross-Functional Collaboration With Cascade 🚀

In today's complex business environment, effective cross-functional collaboration is not merely a desirable trait; it's a competitive advantage. Organizations that can seamlessly bring together teams from various departments to work towards common objectives are better equipped to innovate, adapt, and succeed.

At Cascade, we know that effective collaboration is essential for achieving organizational goals. That’s why our strategy execution platform offers a comprehensive solution to enhance cross-functional teamwork.

Explore some of the key features that enable this:

  • Planner: Build your strategies with structure and ease by breaking down the complexity from high-level initiatives to executable outcomes. Ensure everyone understands their role in achieving shared objectives, whether it's launching a product or improving customer experience.
planner view in cascade example
Planner view in Cascade example

👉🏻 Kickstart your strategic plan by using one of our pre-filled Strategy Templates! We have +1,500 templates you can customize in our Template Library.

  • Alignment Maps: Dig into horizontal alignment across your business and identify cross-functional team objectives easily. See which teams are working together to make progress on a critical objective.
Alignment view in Cascade example
Alignment view in Cascade example
  • Integrations: Centralize your business systems for crystal-clear strategic decision-making. Cascade allows real-time context import through its native, third-party connectors, alongside custom integrations. Seamlessly merge with your existing collaboration tools, project management tools, and other day-to-day operational systems and apps.
  • Dashboards & Reports: Make data-driven decisions with our robust analytics and reporting features. Identify bottlenecks, areas for improvement, and opportunities to keep your collaboration on track.
Example of a Dashboard in Cascade
Example of a Dashboard in Cascade

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#1 Strategy Execution Platform Tear down organizational silos.  Visualize the relationships between your outcomes and strategic vision to  pinpoint misalignment.   Learn how. Book a demo!

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