Innovate with Cross-Functional Collaboration

Updated: February 4, 2013

Doug Austin

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This post is by Doug Austin.

“Two heads are better than one.” We’ve all heard that phrase before, and it is so very true when we’re talking about innovation and what it takes to deliver real, relevant ideas to the marketplace. Being confident enough to invite divergent perspectives into the conversation can yield powerful ideas.

Honest, open collaboration is a real catapult to reaching new heights when you make it an integral part of your development process. New ideas and innovations can affect, influence, or change various departments’ workloads, processes, or even focus. Invite these different areas of influence and expertise to be a part of the process, rather than let them remain people you need to “sell” your ideas to after the fact.

Innovation Through Collaboration

Ultimately, collaboration ensures that all areas of expertise are being considered in the formulation and execution of an idea. Here’s why your team will benefit:
  • Your idea is enhanced by different motivations. It tethers back to what is important to each role inside the company and what success looks like within it. What motivates research and development (R&D) is not necessarily the same for sales or marketing. Success happens when these expert perspectives align and incorporate the consumer’s voice. When you can find a product solution that delivers on all fronts, you have a winning idea.
  • Your process gets smoother. When each person with an area of influence is in the room and engaged, there are far fewer delays in moving the idea through to testing. In a typical Stage-Gate Process, a department can stall or kill an idea at any phase. But when the discussion happens in “real time,” the idea can become reality much more quickly.

Finding Cross-Functional Collaboration Success

Creating and supporting an environment where leaders from sales, marketing, R&D, and operations are open to new ideas, can provide constructive feedback, and will work to bring viable ideas to fruition can be a difficult task. Here’s how to make collaboration a reality for your idea:
  • Select a shepherd. I recommend engaging a third-party expert from the outside to facilitate (and participate in) the conversation. The interpersonal and multi-dimensional dynamics presented during a cross-functional collaboration are very complex. When harnessed properly, this complexity can make a session go extremely well or, conversely, horribly wrong. Choose your session shepherd wisely, and trust her to keep the energy and productivity moving in a positive direction.
  • Get influencers involved early. When it comes to collaboration, sooner is better. I encourage my clients to engage in the conversation from the start. The simple truth is this: If I’m not involved in what you analyzed and, ultimately, what you discovered, I won’t get behind your rationale and approach. Choose your cross-functional team early, and get them committed for the entire process. 

The Results of Engagement

When multiple departments and leaders from throughout the organization aren’t involved from the beginning, ideas will be deprioritized or even discarded. A client we have worked with for more than 10 years refuses to engage the organization across all its key areas of influence. Over the years, we have generated thousands of ideas, many of which could have been category-changing. But without the effort and collaboration of the leadership team, not one has made it into the marketplace.

However, another client has taken our advice and brought together 21 individuals from throughout the company, including leadership and key team members from sales, marketing, insights, production, logistics, legal, and R&D. The success of their very first innovation session included 12 new products being launched within a year. Success at this speed was unprecedented in their category, and, as a result, has launched this client to category captain status with several of their national retail customers.

Finding the Difference

If you’ve ever heard our insights directors speak at a conference, you’re likely to hear them say, “Before it’s a great dish or menu item, it’s a great idea.” That’s because we believe there is a distinct difference between true innovation, product development, and simple line extensions.

All require answering the strategic question, “Are we pursuing this idea because we can, or because we should?”

Embrace the idea of collaboration and get influencers involved as early as you can. Remember, when all the driving areas of influence are invited into the conversation, good things can happen.

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