June 6, 2023

Cracking the Code: Seven Steps to Seamless Cross Functional Communication

For product managers and product marketers looking to advance their careers, participating in a cross functional initiative offers a great opportunity. These company initiatives have broader participation, and your actions have wider visibility, than when you work within your own department. Also, the impact can be more significant, producing an achievement worth highlighting on your resume.

New product launch teams are classic examples of a cross functional initiative that most product managers/marketers are familiar with. Companies assign a new product launch team responsibility for ensuring the readiness of all functions (sales, service, manufacturing, etc.) to support the new product before it’s made available to customers. Another example is opening a new distribution channel, which may require support from the sales, service, marketing and legal departments.

If you’re not experienced at cross functional initiatives, this unfamiliar territory can be intimidating. In particular, the communications norms are different, or may not exist at all. The team may be thrust together with instructions to figure out how to communicate and organize their work.

In this blog, I’ll share seven keys to being a successful communicator on a cross functional team. Whether you’re a budding product manager/marketer, or an experienced hand looking to improve your skills, these lessons will help you make the most of your opportunity.

1. Be direct, relevant, and honest

Most cross functional initiatives are about achieving a goal for the customer and company that requires multiple departments to contribute their expertise and resource. The intersection of the initiative with each department’s functional role is what makes your interaction relevant and provides perspective. Use this as the anchor point for all your communications.

Be direct about how each department contributes to the initiative. If you’re leading the initiative, describe the role you’d like others to play. If you’re supporting, describe the contribution you and your department are making.

Keep in mind that colleagues staffing the initiative have other responsibilities and are likely pressed for time. Being direct and efficient with communications demonstrates respect for each participant’s time.

Here is where honesty is critical: You should be realistic about the resources and participation level you can contribute to the initiative. Others may ask for a lot, not knowing your constraints. Be careful not to over commit and be sure to follow through.

2. Practice cross functional empathy

Realize that each department has its own responsibilities and goals, apart from the cross functional initiative. You likely don’t know the status of these goals and to what extent they may be under pressure.

It’s important to practice cross functional empathy because support offered by other departments for any initiative will be colored by what’s going on in their department. When you acknowledge resource constraints, schedule conflicts, and other limitations, you’re more likely to be seen as a team player and gain participation.

For example, don’t bring a request for support to the Sales Department at the end of the quarter, when staff are focused on closing deals. Instead, recognize your request will conflict with the department’s internal goals and wait until the quarter is closed to make the request.

3. Make your case with facts and figures

Recognize that others may not be as familiar with your department’s operations as you. What may seem an obvious conclusion to you, could be baffling to those outside your department. This is why you need to carefully explain your position and incorporate supporting facts and figures into your communications.

If your communications are going to be verbal, then prepare in advance by researching the topic and noting relevant facts in a notebook that you can easily reference. Nothing undercuts a persuasive argument like having to say “I’ll get back to you with supporting data in a follow-up message.”

4. Keep everyone engaged

Deciding who to include in cross functional communications can be tricky, because you don’t want to burden people with too much information, but you also don’t want to leave anyone out. Here are a few guideposts:

  • Adjust the audience size to the communication channel. Digital channels (IM, email, etc.) lend themselves to wide distribution that allows the recipient to decide whether the communication is important to them. For these channels, a wide audience can be better. For real time communications (meetings via video call or face to face), choose participants by the relevance of the information to the person’s role. Ask yourself “how do I expect this person will use this information?” If the answer isn’t obvious, it may not be necessary to include them in the communication.
  • For complex projects, use a RACI chart to identify the roles of each participant and the information they should receive. Reach out to each participant at the project outset to verify their role. RACI charts are powerful tools that help ensure everyone is in the loop.
  • Don’t forget to keep your own department apprised of your cross functional communications. You want them to share in your successes and you want their support in case challenges arise.

5. Maintain a credit reserve with other departments

Credits are the goodwill that you build by collaborating and assisting others to achieve their goals. When you help someone achieve their objective, you earn a credit.

You can think of cross functional interactions as an exchange of credits. When you lead an initiative and request support, you are withdrawing credits you’ve accumulated with other organizations. When you support an initiative, you are building credits with other organizations.

A positive balance in the credit account makes any cross functional conversation go more smoothly. Strive to maintain a reserve of credits.

6. Make your team proud

Remember that whenever you communicate across functions, you represent not only yourself, but also the peers in your department. The quality of your communications will shape opinions of your product management or product marketing department. Make your team proud by being professional and on-point.

7. Don’t grandstand

You may be tempted to use a cross functional platform to promote your own, or your department’s, success. Don’t do it. You’ll be respected as a company leader when you promote a genuine cross functional success with contributions by multiple departments, not by grandstanding for your own team.

On the other hand, you must speak up and take ownership for shortcomings, including individual and team-wide failures. When a cross functional program doesn’t meet expectations, you should avoid finger pointing and instead take an honest accounting of what went wrong. President John Kennedy said “victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.” All departments share in successes and defeats.

Essential skills to propel your career

Effective cross functional communications raises your profile and helps you build your brand within the company. Put these seven skills to work in your communications and you’ll build a reputation as a strong leader and reliable partner.

Carl Blume is principal consultant at Atlantic Marketing Advisors, a marketing consulting firm serving the B2B software industry, and has held marketing leadership positions at Oracle, HP and several Boston-based startups. He has been a BPMA member since 2018.