You know you need to keep pace with competitors, but you can’t seem to release new products or updates fast enough. And it’s not because you don’t have inventive ideas or dedicated employees. It’s too often the result of dysfunctional or inadequate cross-departmental relations. The dev team isn't moving fast enough. The design team keeps changing things. Leadership changes priorities, again.

Does this sound familiar?

Lack of effective communication and collaboration slows down entire companies. Department heads clash over conflicting goals, executives host redundant meetings that stall processes, and developers waste time searching for correct brand colors instead of fixing bugs. Meanwhile, user satisfaction wanes since you’re not efficiently addressing issues or dropping upgrades. Let alone launching new products.

Luckily, there are three steps you can take to foster cross-departmental communication:

  1. Conduct user research to find the intersection of user and business goals
  2. Align KPIs across teams to encourage company synchronization and efficiency
  3. Build a design system to failsafe your collaboration efforts

When there are well-articulated, shared views of problems with group to-dos working towards solutions, everyone can spend less time playing catch-up and more time innovating at or ahead of market speed.

While all departments benefit from improved communication, let’s zero-in on the design and development teams. Business is also included as it’s the decision-making engine. If these three factions don’t collaborate, your product will be a mess.

Stakeholder-level members from each of these three teams need to be involved in every project from the get-go to ensure the right product is built for the right users with positive business outcomes. Don’t bring developers in at the end just for them to inform designers that their dream look isn't possible, for instance. Get and keep these teams on the same page.

Step 1: Conduct User Research to Find the Intersection of User and Business Goals

Companies sometimes set goals to achieve what’s in their own best interests — to make money for themselves, period. But what they don’t realize is that setting goals with an eye towards user satisfaction creates value for the user and captures value for the company. It’s a win-win.

To make your user and business goals parallel, you first need to conduct user research. Never assume you know what your users want. You need to talk to and understand them before you form goals on their behalf.

User research is accomplished with a blend of qualitative and quantitative approaches, followed by skilled analysis of the findings. It’s an intricate process that you can dig deeper into. Just know that the end goal is to distill user needs directly from their feedback.

The ideal intersection of user and business goals means you have actionable goals delivered at acceptable margins for your business. And these goals are derived from the user needs you distilled during research.

Once your overarching goal is in place, divide the work among the different teams so that each team is working together to accomplish the same outcome. Just having a shared goal compels cross-team collaboration.

Step 2: Align KPIs Across Teams to Encourage Company Synchronization and Efficiency

Put simply, KPIs, or Key Performance Indicators, are metrics that track progress towards goals.

Dysfunctional companies only set KPIs at the team level. Even if each team is tracking positively on their KPIs, it’s unlikely that they’ll affect real change company-wide if they’re not aligned across different teams. There simply won’t be enough power behind any one initiative. Moreover, it's tempting for teams to play it safe and work exclusively on the things they know they can fix with minimal effort and risk. What’s keeping them from walking this easy path if there’s a lack of communal accountability?

Purely fictional example: Let’s say the business team has a KPI to increase profit half a percent this year. The business team has its own meeting to discuss strategies, and someone calls attention to a particularly expensive marketing campaign. The business team, without consulting marketing, stops that campaign and meets their profit goal for the year.

This is an example of an initiative not having enough power to influence company-wide change and a team playing it safe to boost their numbers. If the business team had a shared goal with the marketing team, they’d have a vested interest in the success of both teams.

In a healthy company, KPIs and goals are cross-functional. It’s basic teamwork, which yields camaraderie and accountability. Each team understands their part in reaching that joint result.

Step 3: Build a Design System to Failsafe Your Collaboration Efforts

Crafting perfect goals and aligning KPIs is definitively not enough to keep teams in sync and increase efficiency. So while those two steps will help significantly, the success of your team collaboration venture hinges on an effective design system.

A design system, at its core, is the single and central source of truth for your application’s appearance, behavior, and functionality. A design system is so much more than just a UI kit. It’s a common visual and technical language everyone benefits from. It’s a series of design components for you and your team to reuse.

People in different roles do not often find success utilizing the same software or tools. And asking teams to share tools can feed into cross-team animosity and make the collaboration conundrum worse. This doesn’t hold true for design systems even though they are a shared tool. That’s because design systems are completely customizable. Each team can input information they need in a language they understand. No more forcing one team to adopt and then adapt to another team’s preferred tool — every team gets what they need in one place.

A design system even lessens those feuds across team lines because, for example, developers are no longer guessing incorrectly at typography, angering designers. Designers have the design system set so developers can copy snippets of code specifying aesthetics. And developers can focus on making the application work. No more recreating the wheel or reworking inconsistencies post-launch.

Ultimately, a design system is the glue that holds teams together. It’s a tangible asset you can point to as your shared standards, your identity. When you need something to ground you because your teams are disjointed, turn to your design system. Do the hard and important work of goal finding and KPI alignment, but prioritize a design system to have something teams can truly unite around.

What Comes Next?

Once you execute these three steps, the work doesn’t exactly stop. You’ll need to continue setting goals and KPIs that align internally and with user needs going forward. Moreover, you’ll need to keep your design system fresh so it always reflects your current identity. But the difficult groundwork will be behind you, the collaboration will become second nature, and the efficiency will significantly accelerate your processes.