“Silos.” Perhaps one of the most overused but still relevant words in the compendium of nonprofit jargon. Despite the importance of cross-functional collaboration, many mission-driven organizations still seem to operate in silos, with clear divisions—and lack of communication between—teams.
But whether you work in finance, operations, or fundraising, staying too laser-focused on your own lane is problematic. It can lead to losing sight of the big picture, undercutting organizational efficacy, and stifling creative solutions. So how can you build your cross-functional team muscles?
1. Create project-based teams with a clear purpose
The best cross-functional teams have a time-limited unifying purpose. Whether that’s operationalizing the new strategic plan or overhauling the organization’s website, a well-scoped project helps everyone feel their time is being used well and creates a clear path for how their specific area of responsibility contributes to the project.
2. Establish an agreed-upon definition of success
When you work across departments with different but related goals, it’s especially important to be explicit about what success looks like for this project and this team. One of the benefits of cross-functional teams is that they help you learn about the priorities of other departments and make stronger connections between their workstream and your own.
“What does success look like?” is a great question to ask during an initial meeting, and an important guidepost to return to regularly during the project.
3. Build working agreements
Every team can benefit from working agreements to guide how they work together. Cross-functional teams benefit from team members from different departments—and can also be challenged by the different work styles and expectations members bring from their usual departments. Creating meeting norms from the start can help build trust and a sense of teamwork before you dig in to your project.
4. Outline proactive, transparent, and consistent means of communication
Create a weekly or biweekly check-in meeting with a standing agenda to review project updates, what’s necessary this week, stumbling blocks, what’s on deck for the following week, and what help team members need from each other to succeed in their tasks. In-person is great, but don’t be afraid to use technology like video conferencing and Slack to keep the communication flowing.
Pro Tip: Just be sure to agree on the communication system ahead of time and expectations about communication are clear (this is a great component to include in your meeting norms!)
5. Make sure planning and execution stay together
Sometimes organizations create a cross-functional planning team, but then farm out the execution of said plan to each traditional silo within their organization. What started off as a strong cross-functional plan winds up right back where we started—with each department taking the lead on their piece of the project independent from the big picture.
This is another reason that making your cross-functional team specific to a project is important—it ensures that people are actually working on the planning and execution together as a unit, not on their own individual function as it relates to others. Keep system-level thinking at the forefront and don’t separate planning and execution!
6. Don’t be afraid to disagree
Different ways of thinking about a challenge or project help us come up with the best solutions and systems. You are bringing your functional expertise to a cross-functional team, so know that your input strengthens the process and don’t be afraid to challenge groupthink if it appears.
Have you implemented any cross-functional changes in your workplace? Share your thoughts with us.
Ashley Fontaine is a writer, mental health professional, and former nonprofit executive director. She’s on a mission to eliminate “we’ve always done it that way” from our collective vocabulary by helping leaders focus on possibilities rather than limitations. She believes organizational culture is the key to productivity and staff retention.