With all the players involved in your business, cross-functional collaboration is one tricky beast.
First, we’ve got the sales lead who blames the marketing team for failing to hit their numbers. Then there’s the CEO, who, despite her best intentions, becomes the bottleneck and delays every project. Don’t forget the client who always seems to be the only one without an invite to the weekly Zoom meetings.
It all begs the question: How do we collaborate effectively with different teams and execute a project successfully?
In this actionable guide, we’ll first look at what cross-functional collaboration is. Then we’ll explore the biggest challenges often faced by businesses of all sizes, and the actionable tips on how you can make it work.
- What is Cross-Functional Collaboration?
- 5 Biggest Challenges Businesses Face Collaborating with Different Teams
- How 10 Industry Leaders Make Cross-Functional Collaboration a Breeze
What Is Cross-Functional Collaboration?
Cross-functional collaboration occurs when people from different teams rally together to solve a common goal.
How does this look in the real world?
Imagine a B2B SaaS company hiring a copywriting agency to optimize its website copy.
This agency will collaborate with multiple teams from the B2B SaaS company:
In a nutshell, that’s what cross-functional collaboration is about.
Different teams, different tasks – all with one common end goal.
5 Biggest Challenges Businesses Face Collaborating with Different Teams
I put out a request in community groups where CEOs, managers, and professionals from startups and larger companies frequently hang out.
I then asked two questions, “What was your biggest challenge when collaborating with different teams, and what did you do to make it work?”
Here are the challenges that top the list:
- Blurred Lines of Responsibilities
- Missing Context
- Competing Priorities
- Lack Of Delegation
- Ineffective Tech Stacks
Ever notice that the more your responsibilities pile up after one another, the more confused you get about what they actually are?
That’s what the team at Talk Travel discovered.
“As projects gain momentum and complexities increase, responsibility lines blur and become unclear. This can sometimes lead to non-performance and a lot of blame-shifting.”
Saurabh Jindal, CEO at Talk Travel
This becomes even trickier if you’ve just settled into a new job and you’re struggling to get up to speed.
Grace Lau, the Head of SMB Content at RingCentral, is used to working in startups. Now that she’s working in a larger company, she finds herself wondering who needs to be involved in certain projects.
Without a clear division of responsibility, there’s no ownership. And without ownership, projects delay. Take it from Al:
“If you’re not a natural project manager — for example, you’re not used to coordinating schedules and getting status updates — you find yourself falling behind in communicating to the broader group about your project updates and getting milestones across the finish line.”
Al Chen, Solutions Architect at Coda
Without context, companies run the risk of wasting time — like solving a problem that no longer exists or having two different teams work on the same problem, each unaware of the other’s efforts. (#truestory)
Before COVID-19, GaggleAMP had its Director of Marketing, Head of Product Marketing, and Head of Operations working remotely. Meanwhile, the rest of the team operated in its Boston-based office.
The problem? The team in Boston would often engage in side-bar conversations around an initiative or project that the remote team was unaware of.
“The remote folks aren’t always privy to the context of those conversations, but it’s sometimes assumed that we know the context of those talks. It can, and has, made for some confusion over time.”
3. Competing Priorities
You’d think that teams with a common end goal would have no problem working together, but that’s not always the case.
Sales folks and marketers, for one, are known for clashing with each other. When Seema Nayak, a content marketer at AdChina.io, tried to obtain customer insights from her sales colleagues, she discovered it was a lot harder than it looked.
“Getting the sales team to prioritize sharing insights can be difficult. They have their own tasks and targets, so it’s easy to see how sharing internal knowledge can get deprioritized.”
4. Lack Of Delegation
CEOs are inherently proactive.
Their ability to take on nearly any task and turn it into a DIY project is one of the reasons why they’re able to run a successful business.
But watch out, warns Team Building CEO Michael Alexis – this is both a strength and a weakness.
“I tried to continue being the middle point between sales, marketing, operations, product development, and other teams. The more complex the organization and projects became, the quicker I stopped being a catalyst for projects and instead became a bottleneck.”
Michael Alexis, CEO at Team Building
When a bottleneck strikes, it becomes harder to empower managers. Referral Rock CEO Josh Ho shares that ego comes into play here, which eventually creates the dilemma of who one should actually listen to.
“You want to feel that your project and attempt to collaborate with the team should be top priority. But at the same time, you don’t want to be disruptive to their workflow and how they get things done.”
5. Ineffective Tools
Be honest: Is your tech stack working with you or against you?
Even here at AppSumo, we’ve struggled to find the right tools to help us communicate with ease. No, the irony isn’t lost on us… Who knew a marketplace of tools could also experience this problem?
“One of the biggest challenges when it comes to cross-functional collaboration is communicating effectively and implementing technology as a tool, rather than a blocker.”
Ilona Abramova, Head of Content at AppSumo
These ineffective tools are just the tip of the iceberg. Dominic Kent, who leads content marketing at Mio, observes another problem lurking in the corner: shuffling between multiple apps.
“I work with techies who each prefer their own platform. For asynchronous communications, most people in my company use Slack. Then there are the niche users who prefer Webex Teams or Microsoft Teams for messaging. Juggling between all these platforms just to make sure everyone’s received your message is a chore in itself. ”
Dominic Kent, Director of Content Marketing & Communications at Mio
How 10 Industry Leaders Make Cross-Functional Collaboration A Breeze
Phew, that was a lot, wasn’t it?
Just reading these challenges could make a new employee break out in a cold sweat. Fortunately, these CEOs, managers, and professionals are proof that there are solutions to fix them. Let’s explore seven actionable tips on making cross-functional collaboration work.
1. Build and Earn Trust
AdChina.io used to publish a case study a month. After she gained trust from the sales team, the number shot up to two case studies.
“This eventually helped the sales team to close more deals — our conversions increased by 15%.”
Seema Nayak, Content Marketer at AdChina.io
Earn a team’s trust, and you’ll boost employee morale and productivity in the long run.
If you’re a marketer like Seema, you can do this in two ways:
- Share how a knowledge-sharing culture benefits them in the long run (e.g. they’ll get to work with better-qualified leads)
- Gather regular feedback on how you can improve the marketing materials to help them close the sale.
Trust and communication go hand in hand — 99.1% of surveyed employees prefer to work in a workplace where they can discuss issues truthfully and effectively.
You want to prioritize transparency and regularly check in with the teams you’re collaborating with.
Andrus Purde credits this process on scaling his marketing team to over 20 employees during his time at Pipedrive; he’s using what he learned to build his team at Outfunnel.
“We do all-hands-on-deck stand-ups every week to keep all teammates in the loop. Communicate frequently and aim to resolve issues directly rather than public finger-pointing or via a CEO. Also, spend some time together socially! We’re all humans.”
Andrus Purde, Founder & CEO at Outfunnel
2. Give Every Employee a Voice
Leave an employee or team out, and you’ll quickly lose their attention in the meeting.
Whether it’s an in-person or video meeting, make sure every teammate gets a chance to contribute (even if that means Janet has to give up the floor on her latest sourdough recipe).
Tara McQuaide, Digital Marketing Manager at Indicative, vouches for this approach as it helps everyone be more comfortable over time.
For best results, appoint a moderator to run these cross-functional team meetings. Everyone will stick to the agenda and understand their designated roles right away.
At the end of these meetings, have this moderator (or whoever takes the minutes) write a “wrap up” email to summarize the key insights and action items (along with the assigned person or team).
“This allows everyone to digest the information on their own terms, and freely email anything they noticed was missing in the initial wrap up email.”
Tara McQuaide, Digital Marketing Manager at Indicative
3. Just Ask, Dammit!
Dealing with project ambiguity?
Avoid going at it alone, which runs the risk of making mistakes and having to start over from scratch. Sometimes a conversation with another team (e.g. “Could I double-check if I got this right?”) is all it takes to know if you’re headed in the right direction.
“Suck it up and just ask people as often as you need to. There’s a bit of trial-and-error involved as well. I had to go through a few projects and only then realize that certain people should’ve been in it! It can’t be perfect every time, but we should always just ask.”
Grace Lau, Head of SMB Content at RingCentral
Once you find your answers, jot them down in a cloud-based document and share it widely with the relevant team members. At Coda, Al did precisely this and saw a 50% drop in his Slack messages and emails.
“I also directed people to our objectives and key results to show the metrics we’re hitting, so that it was clear what our north star was for the quarter.”
Al Chen, Solutions Architect at Coda
Here’s a peek at what his documentation looks like. The dates, agenda, and team members involved immediately show what’s next and create a deeper sense of ownership in everyone.
Pro Tip: Heavy documentation and long lists overwhelm. To make it easy for your teams, set up a Welcome Page. This way, your teammates can see an overview and click directly to a specific section without combing through an endless list of content.
4. Appoint A Competent Leader
Form a management team with a leader for each department. And while you’re at it, give it a cool name! Fun fact: Team Building calls theirs The League of Extraordinary Managers.
How do you go about choosing this leader?
Look into your regular one-on-ones and quarterly reviews. Based on these meetings, you’ll have useful insights on who performs best and possesses leadership qualities (e.g. great communicator, takes accountability, etc.).
Next, when assigning tasks to these leaders, shift from input-based goals to measurable outcomes.
“An input-based goal like ‘Schedule the next month of emails’ comes with tighter controls than ‘Increase lead volume by 25%’. The latter empowers your leaders to develop plans and strategies to hit the goals.”
Michael Alexis, CEO of Team Building
5. Cross-Train Team Members
Is it better to be a specialist or a jack-(or Jill)-of-all-trades?
In this case, both.
You want to be an expert in at least one main channel (a.k.a your expertise), and arm yourself with the base knowledge or foundational skills of your collaborating teams.
Take Team Building. The company, which runs virtual team building activities for remote teams, requires its marketers to perform in sales and operations.
“Right now, our marketing manager is leading a major sales project in collaboration with the sales team leads and client advisors. Similarly, one of our VIP admin people is working more closely with event facilitation.”
Michael Alexis, CEO of Team Building
Michael’s cross-training strategy paid off. His marketing and sales teams adapted what they’ve learned in their sales calls to their marketing channels, increasing their monthly revenue to $60,000+ for the company.
He repeated this strategy with his operations and PR teams in his other company, Museum Hack, and won media coverage on publications like National Geographic, Lonely Planet, and Time Out.
6. CEOs, Delegate And Step Away
35.7% of CEOs admit that delegation is a skill they need to improve on. Suffice to say, stepping away from day-to-day operations is a big struggle.
Fortunately, there’s a way to strike a balance.
“I intentionally removed myself from day-to-day decision making and project execution. I still participate. I’m openly available to the team, but I use the phrase ‘Your call’ to empower my team members to make decisions.”
Michael Alexis, CEO of Team Building
The keywords here being “openly available.” You still want to be present when making major decisions.
- Launch documents: Lay out the deliverables from the contract, timelines, and assigned team members. Here’s an example from Will Haire, Founder and CEO of BellaVix:
- Daily and weekly review updates: Summarize meetings and list any potential issues the teams may be collaborating on
- Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs): Provide instructions for routine maintenance (e.g. when to raise a flag internally so that you can remain proactive)
“These help someone like me jump into a situation when a customer is unsatisfied, or expectations are being mismanaged. I catch up on the chatter and red flags, or refer to the deliverables outlined in the contract.”
Will Haire, Founder & CEO of BellaVix
7. Beef Up Your Tech Stack
The tools you need will depend on the projects being addressed.
For example, if you’re a manager who holds one-on-ones, use an employee management software like Soapbox (free in the AppSumo store!) or Fellow. You can create a list of action items and share the status of your meeting to-dos without having to message each other back and forth.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive tool to create a single source of truth, look into collaborative workspace platforms like Confluence and Notion.
“We documented our meetings in Confluence so that we always have an understanding of where we’ve been, where we’re going, and where that information lives, eliminating confusion. And now that side-bar discussions are not happening in-person, it has really cut down on the missing communications outside of our meetings and those documented notes.”
Michelle Brammer, Director of Marketing at GaggleAMP
You’d want your tools to complement each other to improve your company’s internal workflow.
Farzad Rashidi, Director of Marketing at Visme and Co-founder of Respona, uses Slack for his day-to-day communications and Asana for project management. Since these tools can be used together, he can quickly turn Slack conversations into trackable work on Asana.
Whichever tools you use, focus on these two factors:
- Ease of use: Is it easy to onboard team members?
- Integration: Does it offer a wide variety of integrations to help you streamline your process?
Here at AppSumo, we use MeisterTask as it ticks these two boxes.
Each time a task is created or dropped in a specific category, we get a message on Slack, notifying us of the progress.
Our Head of Content, Ilona, is a massive fan of the tags and time tracking features as they help organize certain tasks within a project and gauge the average time needed to complete them.
There’s a lot more about MeisterTask that we love, but we’re on the verge of gushing, so we’ll stop right here. 🙂
Collaborate Effectively and Hit a New Level of Productivity
The current crisis around COVID-19 has forced companies around the world to work remotely. As uncertainty abounds, employees find themselves struggling to navigate the hurdles of working from home for the very first time.
So let’s not sugar-coat the truth: cross-functional collaboration — which was already challenging in the first place — has turned into a whole different beast virtually overnight.
Fortunately, just as these CEOs, managers, and professionals have proven in this guide, it gets easier with practice. After all, there’s nothing a streamlined process and collaborative spirit can’t solve.
It’s time to put these actionable tips into work. And if you need tools to level up 10X faster, browse the AppSumo directory — we’ve got the tools you need to weather the pandemic and come out even stronger.