The Importance of Cross-Functional Involvement

By: Inder Johal


Project managers pay a lot of lip service to the importance of cross-functional management, but too often it’s actually mismanagement that happens.

In my role leading data teams on major digital transformation projects, I have visibility into all the different functional teams. So often, I see those teams not talking to one another, and that can cause problems not just for the data teams, but also problems throughout the project.

Just consider how many moving pieces there are in a given transformative project: Engineering creates specs for how the product should be made. The Planning team will determine how the product will be sold. Marketing will work on who the product will be marketed to. Quality Control focuses on creating a sterile product that meets industry standards. The Warehouse is concerned with having enough space to store the product, as well as how to ship it. The Finance department worries about how to cost the product and report sales. And the Customer Service and Sales teams focus on how to get orders.

That’s a lot of data, and most of it isn’t leaving the department it was generated in but through a myriad of hand-offs and forking paths. But here’s the thing: data is the anchor for cross-functional management. Without sharing at least some of that information with other teams, you have wasted productivity and duplicated effort.

The Pitfalls of Poorly-Managed Cross-Functional Teams

Time and time again, I’ve seen projects put focus on everything but ensuring communication between teams and departments. Each one is so focused on its role in the project that no one notices that things may slowly be falling apart.

Project Goals Aren’t Aligned

Focusing only on data points related to one team, it’s impossible to align all activities and objectives. If the Marketing team isn’t talking to Sales about the channels it wants to sell in, how can Marketing build an effective marketing plan?

An individual team view should not be a myopic silo, focusing on its own deliverables and goals alone, but instead should consider the impact those data points will have on other teams.

You Lack Comprehension

When you simply have people creating data, they’re not assessing or using it to predict future potential issues. Everyone must understand the connection, impact, and dependencies between teams. 

You’re Ill-Prepared for Bottlenecks

As we often say in this industry: if you don’t catch it on the left, you’ll feel it on the right. The more aware of potential issues you can be in advance, the better you can plan for them, but without cross-functional communication, this won’t happen.

There’s No One to Blame, Even When Everyone Is At Fault

While it’s great to have a single neck to choke, you need a neck for each functional team, and they also need to talk to one another. There should be ownership of things that fall through the cracks, but what more often happens is everyone looks at one another and shrugs, unwilling to take responsibility. 

Everyone’s Self-Isolating

Team members may understand the impact of their role on the project, but rather than reaching out to communicate with others, they wait for others to come to them. This is a reactive mindset, and it creates a reactive culture, where emergencies and urgent ‘firefighting’ is what the teams end up spending their time on, rather than proactively identifying and working through cross-functional dependencies ahead of time to prevent emergencies from occurring in the first place. 

A project can’t be a competition. There are no individual winners, only one collective one when the project succeeds. But that requires each person to be the proverbial “team player.”

Getting Back on Track with Cross-Functional Success at Every Stage

Maybe you’ve read this far and realized that your own project has a risk of derailing, thanks to a lack of cross-functional cohesion. Here’s what you can do to get things back on track, no matter what stage your project is in.

Before the project: determine cross-functional ownership. This tends to get lost when each department owns its own teams. Assign a leader (an individual or team) who is responsible for cross-functional collaboration; it should be part of their documented responsibility to ensure that teams communicate. This is the process integrator role.

In the middle: focus on cadence. Everyone should be having daily standups, so start including people from other teams as part of your cross-functional review. Other teams listening in can think about their own dependencies and raise questions as needed.

Close to go-live: micromanagement is required. It might sound negative, but it works in the right situation. Maybe not for every team, person, or every time, but if you micromanage the right processes that are crucial and make up the critical path to the success of your project, you’ll get back on track.

Why Being In The Details Is Not An Option

Here’s an example of micromanaging being a necessity: on a project, I delegated the process around Kit Pricing as someone’s responsibility. I trusted the product owner with the task, but  as you suspect, things went south quickly thereafter. l. During RCA (root cause analysis), the product owner said he tested the process multiple times and got different results every time, and stopped once he got the right result. He (unbelievably) didn’t validate his ‘happy result’ by performing the test against a bigger sample set! 

What was the lesson for me (and for you) here? You must be in the details (or at least question the details frequently) unless and until you’re confident the task is done accurately and completely.  Not doing so simply creates more work and more risk later on.

With a million moving pieces and parts, it’s easy for each team to want to not worry about what other teams are doing, but in the end, all the different pieces are interconnected and as a leader you don’t have the luxury of letting others worry. The ‘data flow’ view I described is one useful lens for project leaders to understand those many cross-department and cross-team interdependencies in order to connect the right work efforts and avoid the pitfalls. Without such cross-functional integration, a project can easily go off the rails. Don’t let it happen to you.