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  • Neil James

Building the Platform for Cross-Functional Collaboration

In my last article ‘Cross-Functional Collaboration – A Critical Success Factor For Growth’, I outlined the growing imperative for cross-functional working in organisations. As I described, this imperative is driven by both the increasing expectations and requirements of customers, but also the evolving nature of teams and enabling technologies.

Many organisations recognise the need to fundamentally improve cross-functional partnership. However, the approaches used to address this need are often limited to tactical tools which may allow them to overcome acute problems or ‘crisis moments’ but which do not lead to sustained enterprise collaboration. This is not surprising given that most organisations are organised on a functional basis. Both the hard and soft characteristics of functional organisations tend to undermine efforts to promote and sustain cross-functional collaboration.

In order to create a sustainable solution, organisations need to ensure that both HR strategy and culture are congruent with a vision for cross-functional working in addition to providing tactical tools. This article introduces a model for this alignment of HR strategy and culture.

Figure 1 - Summary of the Model – Platform for Cross-Functional Collaboration

At the centre of the approach is a clear vision for cross-functional collaboration. This vision should set out the drivers and significance of cross-functional collaboration with clear and strong links to the delivery of the overall company strategy and goals. HR Strategy and Culture are then connected directly to this vision, with each of these having a number of elements (or Critical Foundations), which in turn are executed through a range of Tactical Executions. These Tactical Executions might include specific tools, processes or systems.

Proposals for the Critical Foundations and Tactical Executions are illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2 - Summary of the Model – including Critical Foundations and

examples of Tactical Executions

When reviewing and evaluating this model for practical application, the following three issues should be considered;

1. The model is holistic, with the various Critical Foundations and Tactical Executions having numerous interactions and interdependencies. This is important, as a common finding in failed cross-functional initiatives is that good intent (and often good practice) in one area is undermined or even prevented by the constraints present in another. A typical example of this is in a cross-functional team where silo-based incentive and reward schemes do not support the team to make a decision that is optimised for the enterprise but sub-optimal for specific functions.

2. A broad infrastructure is required to deliver this model. A range of interventions must be built to support and deliver what, at first sight, may appear to be based on softer aspects of HR strategy and culture. Examples of the infrastructure required includes process, systems and capability building – as illustrated below;

  • Process – An organisation in which individuals work in cross-functional teams to create enterprise solutions must have Reward & Recognition processes which encourage and value key cross-functional capabilities, behaviours and outcomes.

  • The default position in a functionally-organised business is that metrics, targets and incentives are routinely functionally-aligned. The practical consequences of this lack of support for cross-silo partnership is then observed at various levels in cross-functional teams, including;

  • a lack of alignment and trust which effectively prohibits genuine collaboration from even starting

  • mindsets and behaviours in the team members which are skewed to meet the functional targets in any incentive scheme, thus preventing the cross-functional team from agreeing a conclusion which disadvantages a single function (even though it might be the optimal enterprise solution)

  • the functional decision-making bias of middle (or senior) managers who will then not approve a cross-functional decision proposed by the team even in the event that the team have been able to reach that point

  • Systems – A culture of integrated planning, in which the organisation’s strategy and operational plans are built on close cross-functional partnership (rather than a ‘divide and conquer’ approach) must be underpinned with strong systems enablement. To develop enterprise-optimised strategies and plans, everyone involved must share a common picture of the starting point and the target. This means understanding the key assets, capabilities and, in particular, financial measures of the various functions’ contributions to company performance. Without this balanced view, there is a tendency for individuals to strongly advocate for strategies or plans which are clearly attractive to their ‘home function’. However, equipped with the insight and understanding of the enterprise-wide opportunities and constraints, they are immediately more empowered to explore optimised enterprise strategies.

  • Capability – HR strategy and culture which supports cross-functional collaboration will recognise the need for empowerment and cross-functional leadership competence. This intent must be enabled by hands-on capability to support key stakeholders in cross-functional efforts. Transforming intent into reality requires, for example, coaches and mentors who can work directly with team leaders and team members. This typically involves supporting individuals to translate the spirit and practice of cross-functional working in their role and helping individuals to build new capabilities and sustain them. Capability to support team building, for example, is also required. Organisation Development capability to deploy with teams and their leaders is critical to set up and run excellent teams built on softer requirements (such as trust and openness) as well as harder ones such as allocating roles and responsibilities, decision-making processes and agreeing metrics.

3. In practice, the demands of deploying the full scope of this model are very significant. This will often mean that achieving broad and consistent progress across all elements is not practicable in the short-term. Whilst a fully-developed and sustainable environment for cross-functional collaboration requires all the elements shown in Figures 1 & 2, a more pragmatic approach will normally be required in order to make a rapid shift which can then be built upon.

In this situation, my recommendation for the key elements which are most critical in the early phases of a transformation programme would be:

  • Senior Leadership – tangible and early signals of senior leadership advocacy and practice

  • Teams – support to set up and run cross-functional teams – including a focus on tools to achieve openness and trust and approaches for decision-making

  • Development – building training programmes on cross-functional leadership capabilities and behaviours supported by hands-on coaching or mentoring to key actors in the process

  • Reward & Recognition (R&R) – starting to build processes to reward cross-functional behaviours and outcomes – with the minimum expectation that R&R does not form a significant barrier to change


Cross-functional collaboration is increasingly recognised as an imperative for growth – this article proposes an outline model which addresses this challenge. The model addresses the limitations seen in commonly used tactical responses and also proposes a pragmatic, phased approach in which key enabling elements for cross-functional collaboration can be established quickly as part of a broader roadmap for transformation.

The overall structure of the model is shown in Figure 1.

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