The What, Why, And How Of Cross-Functional Alignment


George Mueller, creator and first leader of NASA’s Office of Manned Spaceflight, once described the NASA of the early 1960s as “independent fiefdoms.” Each silo was doing what it thought was right, but there were few meaningful communications happening between them. Mueller knew that to execute on President John F. Kennedy’s bold vision to put a man on the moon by 1970, things had to change.

Mueller connected labs, manufacturers, and test sites through easily accessible computer data and teleconferences to open the flow of information and create trust between contributors. He transformed NASA into a single, unified team with a shared vision — a team that ultimately succeeded in landing astronauts on the moon in less time than most experts thought possible. It was George Mueller’s vision for an aligned organization that was largely credited with the mission’s success.

Today, this concept continues to ring true in business. To drive sustained growth requires bold vision. And to execute on that bold vision, your organization must be steadfastly aligned — marching in lockstep and working from a common vocabulary. When cross-functional teams — from leadership on down — share ownership of the vision, outcomes improve. Organizational alignment increases knowledge sharing, improves productivity, creates more efficient processes, and promotes transparency. All this leads to better products and services and drives sustained growth.

But the path to alignment is not an easy one. Creating the right organizational alignment is not something that happens by chance. You have to be determined to achieve change. It may require a fundamental change in the company culture, revising outdated functional stereotypes, and a new focus on joint goals.

The success or failure of a program like Apollo depends upon all of the people doing the actual work understanding what it is that they are supposed to do and how that contributes to the overall program's success, the overall system.

Dr. George Mueller

What is cross-functional alignment?

In simple terms, cross-functional alignment (also known as cross-functional collaboration or revenue alignment), happens when people from different teams or functions in an organization join forces to work on a common goal or project. But more importantly, alignment means that every individual in every function shares a common understanding of what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, and for what purpose.

Types of alignment

  • B2B Sales, Product, And Marketing
  • B2C Marketing, Digital, And CX
  • Technology And Business Alignment

In today’s organizations, it’s not uncommon to find teams and individuals working in silos with little communication across functions. While they may think they each understand what the other is doing, they lack shared vision, goals, and priorities. When this is the case, individual departments may not understand how their actions could impact each other. The reality is that any decision made by one department can adversely affect another department and ultimately cost the organization money, customer loyalty, or both. In cross-functional alignment, individual contributors apply a consistent, companywide strategy and vision to each of their areas of responsibility, resulting in shared perspective and similar ways of working.

Why is cross-functional alignment important?

Your organization may have the most exceptional teams, departments, or individual contributors in the world. But, without consistent cross-functional alignment, the moment that work passes from one exceptional individual or group to another, your chances of success will begin to slide. Sustained growth hinges on a company’s ability to efficiently and successfully execute strategy, tactics, and projects across several functions. In B2B organizations, for example:

Products don’t market or sell themselves. Marketing can’t generate demand for poor products. And sales cannot close business without great products, the right opportunities, and marketing assistance.

When cross-functional teams align around a shared vision and shared goals, innovation is more likely to happen — and when individual contributors are empowered with organizational knowledge, change happens at a faster rate. In other words, revenue alignment is the backbone for accelerated growth and scalability.

Examples of successful cross-functional alignment

One of the best ways to understand the value of revenue alignment is to look at some examples of companies that have put it into practice and reaped the rewards:

  • CME Group’s aligned go-to-market strategy delivered the most successful product launch in company history. The Chicago-based global markets company aligned product, sales, and marketing around a single vision for a new financial product — one that would meet changing customer demand. With cross-functional collaboration, CME saw its most successful product launch ever, far exceeding expectations. Read more.
  • Customer-centricity ignited marketing and sales alignment and fueled revenue growth for a global industrial company. An American transport company achieved revenue growth of more than 50% year over year on strategic growth products when it put marketing and sales on the same path. Read more.
  • Ford Motor Company stays hyperfocused on its priorities and keeps customer value at the center. It’s long been known that a new car depreciates the moment it is driven off the lot. Ford Motor Company endeavors to change that— believing that an unrivaled customer experience can ultimately create value for both the customer and the company.

To learn more about the success of these organizations and others, read Four Examples Of Cross-Functional Alignment That Fueled Growth.

The right kind of alignment for fueling sustained growth

It’s easy to see the value of alignment. But not all forms of alignment lead to competitive growth. Aligning teams around internally focused constructs, for instance, can result in inefficient processes and irrelevant goals and metrics. In research that Forrester recently conducted, we found that successful alignment is less about process and more about calibrating on customer and buyer value. Successful alignment doesn’t mean everyone sings the song in unison — instead, it’s about arranging the parts of the song to achieve a cohesive, harmonious outcome.

When functional teams are oriented around the customer, they understand the roles they play in adapting to major market dynamics. When they work from a common vocabulary rooted in customer value, they are empowered to perform at a higher level. This is the place where sustained growth begins. Our research tells us that organizations that align around the customer recognize 2.4 times higher revenue growth and two times higher growth in profitability than those without alignment.

Shifting to a customer-obsessed alignment strategy may initially create challenges, but focusing on the right areas at the outset will help set you up for success:

  • Meaningful data that pinpoints what customers value. Most companies have tons of data but fail to gather or surface the right data that shows what customers value and how they realize that value. Along with reducing costs, making customer data more accessible, transparent, and meaningful should be a top priority.
  • Rightsized revenue technology. Rather than chasing after the latest bells and whistles or every new three-letter-acronym platform, firms should take stock of their current technology investments across the revenue ecosystem. This enables organizations to use what they already have to deliver insights while facilitating engagement and actions, both of which drive value for customers.
  • A culture that puts customers first. Companies should audit their board minutes, earnings calls, mission statements, and website to make an honest assessment of how well they create value for customers. If an activity or program doesn’t show up on executive reports or dashboards, no amount of processes lower in the organization will have meaningful impact.
  • An adaptive organization. Firms almost universally overlook change management when seeking to realign. Too many executives believe that issuing a decree from the top will automatically manifest the changes they wish to see. Top-performing firms actively dedicate time and resources to change management; they think through employee hiring and training, the language they use internally, and the stories they celebrate to reflect customer value and drive the change that they wish to affect.

For more on how alignment can fuel sustained growth, read Align Around Your Customers To Power Growth In Today’s Economic Climate.

Where cross-functional alignment really matters

In most organizations, functional teams each have their own valuable and unique perspective on the customer. If you can bring teams together to build a collective understanding of customers, not only can they create new ways to deliver value, but they can lean on each other’s strengths to move faster. Here are the areas where cross-functional alignment can best drive a customer-obsessed growth engine:

  • B2B Sales/Product/Marketing Alignment
    In B2B organizations, fully aligned marketing, product, and sales teams can supercharge customer-obsessed growth and deftly navigate complex buyer dynamics. B2B marketing leaders are steeped in buyer needs and likely have the best understanding of the full customer lifecycle. Sellers know which opportunities they’re winning and how they’re helping the buyer purchase. And product teams are continually solving problems and identifying future unmet needs that can spark future sources of value.
  • B2C Marketing/Digital/CX Alignment
    In B2C companies, the marketing, customer experience (CX), and digital functions are the power trio. B2C marketing leaders create brand experiences that inspire devotion through intimate customer knowledge, while well-functioning CX programs improve customer experiences through voice-of-the-customer research and inclusive design. Digital teams focus on core digital products, services, and sales — and can set the pace of the growth engine by connecting and maturing digital skills and processes across the collective team.
  • Technology And Business Alignment
    Technology leadership, architecture, delivery, and security teams also play a critical role in an effective alignment strategy. Working in concert with customer-facing teams, they can magnify impact by aligning to quickly meet future customer needs with adaptivity, creativity, and resilience. Forrester’s 2022 data shows that firms that have reset their tech strategy to be customer obsessed see higher revenue growth than those that don’t.

Successful alignment relies on metrics and accountability

Creating metrics and accountability for cross-functional alignment is essential for organizations to drive success and foster a culture of collaboration. Effective alignment means that each individual team member understands their responsibilities and how their actions directly contribute to the goals of their team, function, and the overall business. Accountability is vital in ensuring that individuals and teams are responsible for delivering on their commitments.

The right metrics serve as a compass, defining a consistent destination for everyone involved. However, leaders often operate in a fog of metrics, making it crucial to adopt a simple and structured approach to selecting the metrics that truly matter. This process starts by creating a clear structure for the organization’s metrics and gaining perspective on their relevance. The chosen metrics should reflect key performance indicators (KPIs) that align with the organization’s overall strategy.

The value of being aligned and accountable lies in creating clarity and focus across people, teams, and functions, which is foundational to building a high-performing revenue engine that fuels growth. By integrating metrics and accountability into the cross-functional alignment process, organizations can enhance transparency, drive continuous improvement, and foster a collaborative and successful environment.

Take the next step in your alignment journey.

For more information on leveraging cross-functional alignment and customer obsession to fuel growth, read our special reports:

Need help getting your alignment journey off the ground? Partner with Forrester. We arm your organization with powerful insights and help you apply proven best practices that build a common vocabulary rooted in customer value. Our approach enables teams to work in lockstep — creating strategies and finding efficiencies across the organization. It empowers leaders to perform at a higher level, supporting bold decisions that lead to sustained growth.

Contact us today.

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