5 Keys to Cross-functional Partnership.

Business team giving a high five

In organizations, silos are the norm.  Most organizations just don’t collaborate cross-functionally very well.  Most managers and leaders assume that their teams are working together as part of the “normal process” of the company’s operations.  Unfortunately, its rarely true.  The results are predictable.  Confusion.  Alienation.  Dysfunction.  Blame.  Low morale.  Poor performance.  Addressing this organizational malaise is actually simpler than most leaders realize.

No blame, just solutions.

Before a group can collaborate at a high level, the members have to trust each other.  Bringing the groups together is not enough.  When beginning a journey to harness  cross-functional partnership, the first thing a leader must do is set expectations that will blossom into trust.  What I have found most effective, is establishing ground rules that 1) no one is to blame, and 2) we are focused in finding solutions.  Those two simple ideas have way of freeing team members from the history of organizational behaviors, and unlocking new ideas and approaches to solving problems.  Organizations don’t build these silos intentionally.  There are good reasons for the behaviors that drive us.  What we need to do as leaders, is give our teams the freedom to jettison that baggage of the past, and architect the new behavioral norms, free from fear of retribution.  Being declarative about the new expectations, along with consistent repetition, can begin to change behaviors quickly.

Understand the common goal.

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” – Gen. George S. Patton

I love this quote.  Most cross-functional groups do not clearly understand what they are trying to achieve.  This lack of clarity allows each individual participant to assume their best outcome is to focus on what benefits their particular group, and not the organization as a whole.  At the beginning, leaders should set a clear expectation for what is to be achieved.  That goal will be most effective if it is focused on something external, bigger than any individual participant or group.  “Our goal is improve how we deliver products to our customers.”  “We are going to design products that better meet the unspoken needs of our consumers, while improving our time to market.”  These are real world examples which have galvanized teams to work together.  Bigger than any one individual.  Focused and external.

Let the team solve the problem.

The second part of Patton’s wisdom is about letting the team dazzle you with their genius.  Far too often, we as leaders believe we have the answer.  Our participation in the cross-functional process becomes more and more directive.  It is our responsibility to encourage our content experts and organizational leaders to come up with their own solutions.  We must repeatedly encourage them to continue investigating, to find their own answers, to make the solution their own.  I have found it most effective to encourage small “offline” groups to develop their own recommendations and solutions, away from the prying eyes of senior managers, managers and other authority figures who are not the content experts.  At Benchmade, we had several groups ask the leaders to accelerate the pace of implementation for their solution.  They had identified their own best path forward, understood the benefits of a full implementation, and became impatient with our pace.  In allowing them to lead in the solution, they were able to launch a product with only a two week delay, when the original recommended path was a 6 month slip.  Their plan.  Outstanding result.

Establish a cadence of accountability.

The hardest part of building organizational trust and cross-functional partnership is keeping the group focused on the task at hand.  Everyday priorities get in the way making progress on the project, and allows the team to drift back into their bad “siloed” behaviors.  You have to force them back together.  At Blount, we described it as maintaining a “ruthless cadence of accountability”.  No matter what, we met.  Everyone had to participate.  Depending on the scope of the challenge, you can set an appropriate cadence – daily, weekly, monthly – whatever is necessary.  But you must force participation on a recurring cadence.

Group members make commitments to each other.

It is not enough to have people passively participating.  They must be engaged.  If I ask you to complete a task, your might do it.  But, you won’t feel ownership.  If a member of the group commits to deliver something, the likelihood of an emotional commitment to deliver is much higher.  I have used this method at 4 different organizations, and it’s never failed me.  (FYI – Stephen Covey first exposed me to this idea in his book “The Four Disciplines of Execution.”  Great read.)  Make part of your cross-functional project a report out with participants making commitments, and reporting their progress.

Once an organization gets used to partnering, to trusting each other, the synergistic effects multiply very quickly.  Distrust fades.  Proactive engagement replaces silos.  New capabilities are unleashed in individuals within the organization.  At Blount, I had a team member from another part of the organization chase me down in the hallway to talk about a solutions she’d developed.  At the beginning of the process, we had to physically go get her to attend meetings.  That team learned to cross-functionally identify and resolve problems so well, they began to outrun their oversight.  Not in a frightening way, but an amazing one.  The benefits to the organization, and our customers, were outstanding

The solution seems simple.  Gather the cross-functional experts; free them from the past to build their future; set a clear vision; empower the team to take action, ask for commitments; and develop a cadence.  And, it actually is.  As leaders, we have to have the courage to empower them, the willingness to create the necessary clarity, and the patience to allow the team to find their own way.

Mike Ulwelling



Author: Mike Ulwelling

I've had the privilege to have a dynamic career as both an executive in small, medium and large companies, and an entrepreneur leading my own companies for over a decade. I hope you find my thoughts and ideas interesting and thought provoking.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: