Cross-Functional Collaboration

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Once designed for one-off uses and “gap filling,” collaboration must now become a way of corporate life. Digital-driven organizations have to stop thinking about cross-functional initiatives as temporary solutions to a specific problem or opportunity and start thinking about collaboration as a characteristic of the nimble (albeit often sprawling and dispersed) organization. But ongoing, organic partnerships between departments do not happen naturally.

It’s time to get serious. By 2020, three-quarters of business leaders expect to have many internal initiatives spanning multiple functions and a workforce with skills adapted to multiple functions. Employees also are seeing more changes that increase cross-functional work, CEB 2016 Workforce Change Survey.


No wonder two-thirds of executives recently polled by Gartner indicate they are using collaboration models as part of their digital transformation initiatives. Yet success has proved elusive over the years. A 2015 Harvard Business Review article reported that three-quarters of cross-functional teams lack a clear goal or objective. Initiatives often fail when executive sponsors don’t offer full support or competing priorities push them down the participants’ agendas. These challenges remain even as much-needed, more ambitious corporate changes such as aligned assurance create extra pressure to get collaboration right.

Still, we’ve seen several processes, platforms and workforce innovations that can help companies find, create, evaluate and execute cross-functional opportunities. The following frameworks are not mutually exclusive, and organizations that collaborate effectively often use them in conjunction with one another.
 Information Sharing Platforms: Crowdsourcing Growth Ideas
 Insight Transfer Teams: Coordination at the Center
 New Workforce Roles: Growth Networkers and Embedded Collaboration Scouts

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Put a Variety of Structures to Use


By now, you may have spotted how these different structures can fit together, but here are a few real-world examples:
 The company that used growth networkers also used a web platform to solicit ideas and tasked its cross-functional liaisons with searching submissions for new opportunities.
 The company that solicited ideas through a web platform also built a cross-functional team of “growth prospectors” who pressure-tested ideas before the execution phase.

There’s an old proverb: give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you’ll feed him for a lifetime. Here’s a new one: create a cross-functional project, and it will go away; build a cross-functional organization, and you’ll have projects in your pipeline.

Move from Opportunity to Action


Just as structures can help expose opportunities for collaboration, they can also improve the execution of cross-functional projects. After all, nobody likes being forced into working together, but people do like to be included in decisions.
One firm uses a workshop where functions assess potential initiatives that would involve them. They can evaluate their own readiness to participate — and get a sneak peek at the advantages of collaboration. A chance for input gives executives a strong sense of ownership before the project even begins.


You can also manage execution with the same systems that discovered the initiatives in the first place. For instance, the liaison employees who unearth initiatives can also get them underway. Or, with executive oversight, coordination teams can help functions align or pool money and staff and direct the collaboration from within. In both cases, instead of transferring information between functions, these hubs act as a safe space for ideas to incubate and for products to develop free from functional pressures and normal resource constraints.

IBM used this strategy to develop its “Emerging Business Opportunities” framework, which led to more than $15 billion in growth between 2000 and 2005. By 2011, 20% of IBM’s top-line growth came from businesses that started in these cross-functional units.