How to Foster Collaboration Among Cross-Disciplinary Teams

Cross-disciplinary teams collaboration

Several articles on this blog have touched on the importance of collaboration across both engineering and non-engineering disciplines (see pretty much everything here).

Teams that work this way are more efficient, more innovative, and, as a Cornell study found, “more effective at driving practical results from innovation than teams that are missing [cross-functional expertise].” All of these results can translate into a huge competitive advantage for companies.

But realizing the benefits of cross-disciplinary teams takes more than just telling people to work together. In fact, three out of four cross-functional teams are dysfunctional.

This article provides tips for how to foster collaboration and make cross-disciplinary teams successful.

Give them the right tools

First and foremost, for anyone to collaborate, they need the right tools. In a team of two people, the right tools could just be their cellphones and a shared Google drive. But engineering teams often involve many more than two people.

For tools, there are two main things to consider: communication and collaboration.

  • Communication. Your team’s communication needs will depend on many factors. Are the in the same office? The same building? Or are they on different continents? Tools like Slack enable easy communication — both synchronous and asynchronous — regardless of where your team is located.
  • Collaboration. Beyond communicating, your team members all need to be able to work on the same project, often at the same time. Traditional engineering tools are siloed — each discipline has their own. That means your engineers are constantly importing and exporting data, hoping they have the right version. And spreadsheet programs like Excel simply aren’t built for multi-user collaboration. The answer is to bring all of the functions under one umbrella with a platform like Engineering Base, which allows engineers from all disciplines to work simultaneously in a centralized database.

Once you’ve got the technology down, you can focus on what is undoubtedly the most challenging part of cross-disciplinary teams: the people.

Educate team members about the other disciplines

People can’t work together if they don’t understand one another.

This may seem obvious, and it may be why this piece is so often overlooked. But research suggests that the key to successful cross-disciplinary work is understanding the other disciplines.

Team members from different disciplines had different training. They may have different goals, approach problems in different ways, and use different language to describe the same things. These perspective differences can quickly lead to communication breakdowns.

So, while it sounds like a simple thing, take some time to make sure everyone understands where everyone else is coming from and what they bring to the table.

Provide strong oversight and support

Finally, don’t send your team off to flounder on their own.

The same study that found that the vast majority of cross-functional teams fail also found that the key to success was oversight. Across the industries studied (which included semiconductors, manufacturing, and software), 76% of the projects that had strong governance by either high-level cross-functional oversight or a single high-level executive champion were successful. With only moderate governance support, the success rate fell drastically — to 19%.

Overall, the authors concluded: “Our research showed that the reason why most cross-functional teams fail is because siloes tend to perpetuate themselves: for example, engineers don’t work well with designers, and so on.” Their answer is to establish a high-level leadership team. “As they learn to work as a team, that attitude perpetuates itself in the teams under their purview.”

Tools, education, and oversight — they won’t solve every challenge related to cross-disciplinary teams, but together they create a powerful triad. To learn more about how to bring engineers together, read How Connecting Engineering Processes Creates Synergy Among Disciplines.

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