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Cross-Functional Communication Best Practices to Boost Collaboration

When trying to boost communication and collaboration among cross-functional teams, know that it needs effort on the employee’s part as well as the management’s. The best practices we discuss here will offer you tips to effect changes at the employees’ level as well as the managerial or organizational level.

1. Have a framework to smoothen communication

Without a framework that defines when and how to communicate and coordinate, you can’t expect smooth interaction and project delivery, even if your team has the best tools for collaboration and communication.

To create a communication framework for a cross-functional team, you’d need the following:

  • Defined project goals, project milestones, and deliverables
  • Well-chalked out cross-functional workflow and expected interdependencies
  • Chosen communication channels (online and offline)
  • Pre-decided frequency of project updates and feedback loop
  • Defined responsibilities of each team member and identified decision makers
  • Progress tracking and measurement processes with scope for iterations and course correction

You’d need to hold project kick-off meetings to align all team members with the above-mentioned elements. This will help you mitigate potential conflicts due to a lack of clarity of purpose. It would provide transparency of workflow and motivate your team members, fostering smoother communication and coordination.

2. Offer engagement forums to boost transparency

One of the many reasons behind the lack of cross-functional communication and collaboration between teams is the lack of understanding of each other’s roles and priorities. Then there is also the unawareness about the skill sets available in different teams.

Consider holding interdepartmental introduction meetings and encourage managers from different teams to participate. Each team can briefly and informally talk about their ongoing and upcoming projects, departmental goals, and available skill sets. This will help them find commonalities, identify collaboration opportunities, and eliminate interdepartmental inefficiencies.

In a report, Gartner discusses an example of such a collaboration between the HR department and the communication team. The report mentions that while HR and communication leaders understand each other’s role profiles, they don’t understand each other’s goals.

Therefore, it is advisable that departmental heads sit down to map the overlap between their KPIs and brainstorm ways to help each other in achieving their respective KPIs.

3. Prepare for conflict management to iron out the creases

Cross-functional or multifunctional teams are complex and structurally diverse, which makes them prone to conflicts. Interpersonal conflicts and intergroup conflicts are the two main types of conflicts such teams are likely to face.

Interpersonal conflicts manifest when two people disagree and fail to respond peacefully or positively. Intergroup conflicts manifest when two groups or teams are at odds with each other with respect to their goals and objectives.

However, conflicts stemming out of difference of opinions are not always negative and can in fact be positive drivers of change and growth if handled well.

Here are a few ways to help you develop a functional conflict management system:

  1. Set up an employee advisory system wherein an advisor is assigned to each team. Any employee experiencing conflict can seek guidance from this trusted professional advisor for resolution.
  2. Create mock-teams and carry out role-playing activities to help team members understand each other’s point of views and to foster team spirit.
  3. Appoint a manager who observes employee and team behaviors and intervenes in case of a conflict or a foreseeable conflict.
  4. Promote positive behaviors such as active listening and responses versus reactions through leadership talks, HR webinars, and employee coaching sessions.

4. Foster coaching and mentorship to promote collaboration

Companies often end up pitching employees against each other. This leads employees to focus on themselves and their performance instead of wanting to help or coach others.

Another Gartner report explains that companies set KPIs that focus on individual goals and performances but not coaching and helping others. This increases competition between employees as they continuously try to outperform each other. This behavior works against coaching and helping others and reduces the chances of collaboration and communication among coworkers.

To prevent this from happening at your business, revisit your performance metrics to:

  • Define specific coaching and mentoring activities or initiatives as individual KPIs. For instance, coaching others within and outside the team to develop IT expertise.
  • Factor in the achievement of shared team objectives in individual appraisals to boost shared accountability. For instance, collaborating with product managers and IT teams to address challenges.
  • Provide examples of expected individual attitudes and behaviors to set a benchmark. For instance, sharing regular constructive feedback with different stakeholders or sending updates frequently.
  • Offer public recognition (via emails from seniors or promoting peer stories of collaboration and coaching on the intranet) as incentives instead of just financial rewards.

5. Befriend technology for effective cross-functional teamwork

Effective communication and collaboration need more than soft skills. If your team doesn’t have the right tools and technology, they’d be stuck in the loop of never-ending emails. It can be much worse for cross functional remote teams.

Your cross-functional team with in-house or remote employees needs tools that help them swiftly communicate and work together in real time. They should be able to schedule video calls, conduct web conferences, chat in real time, update and maintain a central database, and manage workflows.

Remember that even if you get the best tool, you’d still need buy-in from your teams and key stakeholders. If they don’t feel convinced or comfortable using a software tool, your investment is going to bring you negative returns.

To reduce friction and resistance among teams and make it easier for them to transition to a particular tool, here are three ways to collect feedback on your software search. 

1. Treat software selection like a team sport

It’s important to identify all teams that will be impacted by a software change and include coworkers from those groups in the decision-making process.

It might seem like a bottleneck step in a process where leadership—or whoever is responsible for the final purchase decision—can ultimately make a decision without outside input. But if you don’t collect team input, you risk selecting the wrong software or facing an uphill battle on adoption.

At the very least, you need a sample of individuals who will use the software every day, a finance person, someone from leadership, someone with technical expertise, and someone from your legal team. We’ll talk more below about what each of these roles can bring to the conversation.

2. Stick to 3 to 5 software options to avoid overload

There’s a phenomenon known as "choice paralysis" which boils down to: Don’t give people too many choices or they’ll disengage and not choose anything. The same principle applies to getting software feedback from your team.

Give them between three and five options instead of 20. You’ll avoid choice paralysis, and have a decision sooner rather than later. You’ll also likely get richer feedback, since your team will have more time to comment in-depth on a few options than they would for many.

3. Tailor your discussions for each audience

People from different teams need different information about each software option as it relates to their roles. And because different teams bring their own sets of expertise, you’ll want these perspectives represented in the feedback you gather.

Final thoughts

There are certain tips that will come in handy when you set out to revolutionize communication practices within your cross-functional teams or boost cross-functional communication in your organization as a cultural change.

  • Have a face-to-face with managers of different teams to understand the challenges their teams are facing when it comes to cross-functional communication. You can even survey your employees to understand their thoughts on cross-functional communication and the challenges that they have.
  • You need to set up and maintain a continuous process to evaluate and audit cross-functional communication. This would help you to identify and tackle shifts in goals and priorities of cross-functional communication. You can conduct regular meetings with your teams to iron out any challenges they might feel during transitioning from one cross-functional project to another.
  • While collaboration and communication frameworks, tools, best practices, etc. will help you a great deal, you also need to focus on assembling the right team to boost productivity and effectiveness. Keep in mind that the best team isn’t always composed of individual achievers. The goal should be to create a team that’s balanced enough to function well together and collaborate effectively.
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