Harnessing the Hive Mind through Cross-Functional Collaboration

Harnessing the Hive Mind through Cross-Functional Collaboration

For Agile teams to have success, people need to work together across all departments. Design, marketing, sales, and engineering all have unique perspectives. Cross-functional collaboration is a way to break team members out of departmental silos. Merging diverse talents sparks innovation, aids troubleshooting, and fosters a culture of healthy interdependence. But it doesn’t come without challenges.

Whether in-person or remote, cross-functional collaboration can get messy fast. Teams need powerful tools to communicate, streamline, and contain their work. Agile teams benefit from using fewer, more robust applications that integrate seamlessly. Whiteboards is one of these essential cross-functional tools. 

With Whiteboards, team members can enjoy true cross-functional collaboration. This includes the unparalleled benefit of two-way Jira integration. What does this integration mean for you? First, your cross-functional team holds a meeting on our infinite-plane virtual whiteboard. The whiteboard includes 70+ editable templates to organize all your brainstorming and planning. As you develop your action plan, import Jira issues straight onto the whiteboard and update them. Or, easily create new Jira tasks on the whiteboard. In just a few clicks, virtual sticky notes from your meeting become new Jira tasks. As you create new issues and update current ones, these changes appear instantly in Jira for relevant users. In this way, for example, ideas from design and sales become tasks for engineering without extra steps. Jira and Whiteboards automatically sync both ways to keep everything up to date.

Let Whiteboards help your team avoid cross-functional chaos. Keep reading for tips on building successful cross-functional teams. We’ll show you how to avoid common pitfalls of collaborative projects.

What is cross-functional collaboration?

Cross-functional collaboration happens when diverse stakeholders form a working team in pursuit of a common goal. The team typically has a leader to facilitate and organize the process. Still, cross-functional teams fundamentally embrace a power-sharing, cooperative approach. This can take on many overlapping forms:

  • Project-based: a multi-departmental or multi-level team is formed to execute a single project
  • Ongoing: stakeholders from each of the organization’s departments meet regularly to keep all the moving parts aligned with the overall vision
  • Outside stakeholder inclusive: the team includes clients, partners, or end users. These external stakeholders participate in development, testing, and retrospectives
  • Intradepartmental: larger organizations with more complex hierarchies form teams including people at different levels or functions within a department
  • Workplace-wide: smaller organizations are often effectively cross-functional by nature due to the small total number of stakeholders

All organizations require cross-functional communication to operate, but cross-functional teams are different. They bring diverse stakeholders together to work in a collaboration that benefits from each of their strengths. Successful Agile workplaces continually ask who the relevant stakeholders in this situation are. How are we empowering each one to contribute their unique perspective and expertise? Cross-functional collaboration is one key answer to these questions.

What are the advantages of cross-functional team collaboration?

Effective cross-functional collaboration builds relationships that benefit all stakeholders.

We’ve all called a customer service line with a simple question. Too often, we talk to representatives who don’t know the answer and don’t know who does. They move us to the next person. As we wait on hold yet again, we think that this company must be a nightmare to work for. Nobody knows what anyone else is doing at other levels or in other departments. It’s clear to us that the customer success team lacks effective cross-functional communication.

Poorly-managed customer service departments are just one basic example. The organizational benefits of cross-functional collaboration run much broader and deeper than that. At its root, cross-functional collaboration is about building relationships. The quality of those relationships directly affects the success or failure of the overall mission. Here are some key ways strong cross-collaborative relationships make organizations more successful:

  • Successful collaboration fosters a culture of transparency and trust.

Mutual trust is the cornerstone of any healthy organization. We come to trust what we can see and experience. Cross-functional teams build trust incrementally. They engage in vulnerable, transparent, and consistent processes over time. Well-structured cross-functional collaboration brings relevant stakeholders together, facilitates communication, and improves working relationships. Team members come to understand the dependencies among different departmental tasks and their accountability to the process. Together, they create an interdependent team culture of self-reflection, humility, and open collaboration.

  • Working together on the bigger picture promotes buy-in and ownership.

We need to know the work we’re doing is important and appreciated. From inside our departmental silos, it can be hard to measure how much our contributions matter. Team members may end up running through a series of mundane tasks, checking boxes, and feeling like cogs in a machine. When stakeholders come together and share their expertise, it builds mutual appreciation for each member’s contributions. The accountability and close interdependency of cross-functional collaboration empowers each contributor. Positive feedback and constructive criticism follows. Soon, everyone feels their value and the motivation to succeed.

  • Cross-functional feedback loops catch small problems before they become big ones.

Pinpointing and troubleshooting issues as they arise is fundamental to Agile workplace success. Multidisciplinary working teams employ frequent cross-collaborative evaluations to prevent minor issues from escalating. Well-organized cross-functional teams create spaces to discuss issues for feedback and quicker resolution. Structured discussions and regular analysis expose weak points that may otherwise go unrecognized. Team members offer support to the department or function struggling with that particular part of the project. 

Team collaboration can lead to better success when working on a project
Team collaboration can lead to better success when working on a project
  • Frequent cross-pollination drives creativity and innovation.

Nothing stifles creative thinking like silos of people hyper-focused on one area of the work. Routines stagnate, and feedback comes mostly from other people who are thinking all day about the same things we are. Exchanging ideas with people focused on different areas of the organizational vision pulls individuals out of unproductive loops. Different perspectives inspire creative ways for team members to approach their own processes. Brainstorming problems among diverse stakeholders leverages everyone’s strengths in a shared mission.

  • Cross-functional teamwork minimizes echo chambers and realigns individual stakeholders with the overall vision.

Silos are breeding grounds for misconceptions and frustration. When we don’t know what other people are doing or don’t know why they’re doing it, we end up talking to the people around us, who often also don’t know. Worse, our work may end up clashing with the work of other teams in the organization. When team members collaborate cross-functionally, they have to develop better articulation. They must explain themselves in ways they don’t to colleagues who work daily in the same functions they do. As they clarify their process to their cross-functional team members, they clarify it for themselves. Hearing “Why do you do it that way?” from a genuinely curious third party becomes refreshing. It may be just what a team member needs to challenge their assumptions and break unproductive workplace habits.

Is your team ready to experience the benefits of cross-functional collaboration tools? Download the free Whiteboards app today. Easy visualization and 70+ templates help you run focused cross-functional team meetings. Two-way Jira integration makes Whiteboards the ultimate cross-functional tool.

What are common challenges of cross-functional collaboration?

Successful cross-functional team leaders address the hard issues right away.

Cross-functional collaborative work done well benefits all stakeholders. But building effective cross-functional teams and keeping them on track isn’t always easy. Opportunities that make multidisciplinary collaboration fruitful can become impediments if team leaders don’t face them head on. A widely-cited 2015 study in the Harvard Business Review found that 75% of cross-functional teams surveyed in large company environments were significantly dysfunctional. That’s a cautionary enough number to give pause.

Effective cross-functional team leaders must overcome common pitfalls:

  • Building trust is hard work.

Cross-functional collaboration brings together people with a lot of different perspectives. That means different ideas about how to do things. The potential for innovation and improved problem-solving is vast, but so are the opportunities for hurt feelings and personality clashes. Any feelings of discomfort will cause morale to flag, and productivity with it.

  • More meetings can be a drag.

Inviting people to join a cross-functional team can trigger bad memories. Most people were on a taskforce or working group that ultimately did little more than pull them away from their real work. Will this really be a helpful collaboration? Is it just more hours spent each week on Zoom calls, camera off, checking their personal messages because people are discussing things that don’t involve them anyway?

  • Collaboration gone wrong becomes conflict.

Diverse perspectives spark new ideas and better solutions, but they can also create tension and misunderstandings. Louder voices overwhelm quieter ones. Conflicting points of focus derail project planning. Members become defensive of their established ways of doing things. Existing departmental priorities clash with the team’s stated goals.

  • There’s a thin line between collaboration and chaos.

There’s a good reason traditional top-down approaches to workplace management appeal to those seeking an orderly system. Even when a cross-functional team gets along well, asking multiple people to weigh in means more ideas to consider. Considering each contribution is more complicated than having one person make decisions and hand off tasks. Finding consensus can feel overwhelming as factions form around opposing ideas. Sometimes, the overall vision of the project gets lost in the weeds.

  • We don’t all speak the same language.

Teams and departments inevitably have their own lingo and conversational shortcuts. The programmer’s tech speak makes no sense to the sales and marketing team member. The accounts analyst doesn’t understand the finer parts of the design software the product team member is going on about. We typically spend eight hours a day communicating mostly with our own people and we can struggle to translate that to those outside our department. We may not even realize we’re speaking our own departmental dialect.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to these problems. They each point to the need for intelligent structure, solid processes, and careful team composition from the outset. Every cross-collaborative team will need to tailor solutions to their particular situation, but the best solutions come from asking the right questions. Avoid tempting shortcuts along the lines of, “We’re all great people, so we’ll be able to figure that out as we go.” Great people deserve great processes and tools so they can do great work. Decide what those will be before you start! 

You can reduce a lot of challenges by trying the free Whiteboards app today. Online whiteboards are easy to use and understand, removing a lot of the issues in cross-functional collaboration. Meet more efficiently, visualize everything, and sync directly with Jira.

What are best practices for effective cross-functional collaboration work?

Set your remote cross-functional team up for success from the start.

Clarity and transparency are key to cross-collaborative success. Doing the work upfront to clearly define your goals and processes heads off common problems before they arise.

Structures and processes in Agile project management need to remain open to appropriate revisions over time, but they should never be amorphous or confusing. All team members need to understand why they’re there, what they’re expected to contribute, and how they can do that in a way that maintains a safe and supportive process for all stakeholders.

Think of your remote cross-functional team as a news story. The reporter writing the story asks you the standard journalistic questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how? Cross-functional team leaders can use these questions as a project management guide:

  • Why are we forming a team? Only form a new team if you can define how it will directly benefit the organization. Otherwise, you’re just creating more meetings. Write a brief mission statement for your team. What is the team’s scope? Is it forming to execute a single project? Is this a one-time project, or will the same team work on similar projects in the future? Is this an ongoing cross-functional team designed to keep departmental work better integrated? Keep in mind that healthy working relationships are fundamental to successful collaboration. It can be helpful to limit the scope initially by running a cross-functional collaboration test project. Assess how well the team works together and adjust as necessary for future projects.
  • Who will be on the team? In successful cross-functional collaboration, the team leader is a facilitator, not a director. Their job isn’t to produce specific results, but rather to manage an end-to-end process in which the team develops solutions together. An excellent facilitator has several responsibilities. They continually check the temperature of the room and enforce team agreements firmly but graciously. They steer meandering conversations back on track. They ensure each team member feels supported to speak up safely and participate equitably. Effective cross-functional team leaders remain vigilant about the pitfalls we mentioned above. They are alert to any communication breakdown. They check in with individuals one-on-one outside meetings as necessary. The team leader’s number one priority is building trust and cooperation among diverse stakeholders. Strong relational intelligence and a sense of fairness are essential personality qualities. The best team leaders understand people management as the cornerstone of project management.

    Choose team members for their experience and expertise. They should also have direct relevance as project stakeholders, the ability to liaison with their department or function, and energy for teamwork. Not everyone is equally geared for intensive cross-functional collaboration, and that’s okay. Agile workplaces seek opportunities to capitalize on individual strengths. Choose cross-functional team members accordingly.
Let everyone collaborate on a project to see what they can bring to the table
Let everyone collaborate on a project to see what they can bring to the table
  • When are we meeting? Consistent ceremonies are crucial to effective cross-functional collaboration. Consider weekly meetings and semi-weekly check-ins to keep projects on track. Choose times when everyone can participate in the whole meeting. Different time zones and busy schedules can make this a challenge. If a prospective member’s intermittent scheduling conflict compromises their ability to show up consistently, the team suffers. You may need to consider another candidate. 
  • What are we doing? An effective cross-functional team has a written agreement spelling out the purpose, goals, guidelines, processes, and meeting schedule. Each member understands the project and what they’re bringing to it. If you’ve done the work of “why,” “who,” and “when,” you’ve answered most of this question, but don’t skip the step of formalizing it to keep everyone on the same page. Bring the team agreement draft to the initial meeting. Co-edit it as your first exercise in cross-functional collaboration work. Organize your editing session with the free Whiteboards Brainwriting Template. Each member comments on virtual sticky notes, and the group uses these comments to edit the agreement together.  
  • Where are we meeting? For remote teams, the answer is, “On our computer screens.” The question then becomes, “Which virtual meeting platform will we use?” Cross-functional teams generally benefit from gathering on a virtual whiteboard with video support. Everyone can see and talk to each other as they organize the discussion visually with interactive templates and drawing tools. Choose a digital platform that creates the best virtual meeting room for your cross-functional team collaboration. Test out the free Whiteboards app today to see how it works for your team.
  • How are we getting the work done, and how will we know if we’ve succeeded? Once you’ve established the vision and goals, assembled a motivated team, hashed out initial logistics, and drawn up a prospective team agreement, you’ll need to make sure you have the right tools to support your team’s success. The best apps for cross-functional collaboration mirror your collaborative process by integrating cross-functionally with each other.

The Whiteboards app provides efficient project management tools to guide cross-functional teams. From ideation through retrospectives, the whole team can participate in straightforward ways. Jira users meeting on Whiteboards take advantage of our unique two-way Jira integration. Whiteboards eliminates the need for post-meeting Jira updates. Users create, pull, and update Jira issues during the Whiteboards meeting session. Every change syncs automatically in Jira.

As you explore cross-functional tools, remember that relationships form the cornerstone of collaborative work. In an extensive 2012 study of its collaborative teams, Google found that “psychological safety” was the single most critical factor in team success. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines this psychological safety as a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking,” including “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.”

Keep in mind, then, that supporting the work requires supporting each person doing the work. Embrace a consistent but flexible meeting routine. Put an emphasis on regular check-ins and evaluations. Read the room, and ensure everyone is comfortable and heard.

Whiteboards offers more than 70 free, customizable templates to focus your cross-functional team’s process at every stage. Brainstorm using the Mind Map Template. Plot out a detailed course of action in the User Story Mapping Template. Troubleshoot problems with the Fishbone Diagram Template. Drive collaboration and teamwork with these easy-to-use templates.

One last thing: don’t skip the retrospectives

Retrospectives are an important part of supporting successful cross-functional collaboration into the future. Choose retrospective processes that go beyond measuring the quantitative success of the project. Create room for sharing personal experiences. Invite honest feedback with good boundaries. Folding those learnings back into the team process is vital to healthy cross-functional collaboration.

Retrospective templates available on Whiteboards.io
Retrospective templates available on Whiteboards.io

Whiteboards has your retrospective meeting needs covered. The Temperature Reading Retrospective Template shows how contributors felt about their recent team experience. The Learning Matrix Retrospective Template digs in deep and invites participants to commend teammates’ contributions. The Mad, Sad, Glad Retrospective Template discovers which parts of the process made team members frustrated, disappointed, and proud. Whiteboards templates have simple step-by-step instructions to help cross-functional team leaders run safe and productive retros.

Finally, as you work out the “how” with your team, remember that cross-functional collaboration methodology is just Agile methodology with a few added twists. When in doubt, refer back to the basics:

Cross-functional collaboration in Whiteboards and Jira

Give your cross-functional team efficient, cross-functional tools.

In-person or remote, cross-functional teams need a solid plan for running meetings, communicating tasks created in those meetings, and corresponding between meetings. Countless digital platforms offer tools to keep meetings and communications organized. That said, many lack tools that make the process truly transformative. The more integrated your digital tools, the less busywork and the fewer dropped communications.

Whiteboards facilitates cross-functional team meetings with 80+ interactive project management templates. Brainstorming, story mapping, troubleshooting, retrospectives, and more are a click away. Users video chat within Whiteboards while collaborating in real time. They visualize their process on the infinite-plane whiteboard. Cross-functional teams use the Whiteboards stand-alone app to keep all their meeting diagrams in one place for quick reference. Jira users additionally benefit from Whiteboards’ unique two-way integration with Jira. During ceremonies on Whiteboards, users import issues from Jira, update them individually or in batches, and create new Jira issues directly in Whiteboards as they develop user stories. New issues and modifications to existing issues sync automatically in Jira. Jira updates also appear in real time on the whiteboard.

Sign your team up for a free Whiteboards account today to get the most out of your next collaborative project.