team working together

We hear more companies are forming cross-functional teams as they face more complex problems and target more complex goals. Organizations are breaking down hierarchical barriers to try to speed up the innovation and creation process. Many are getting team members from various departments together to solve problems and build new products. But do cross-functional teams work or are they just a passing trend? 

What is a Cross-functional Team?

A cross-functional team is a team composed of members who have different functional skills and expertise. Members of cross-functional teams then use their skills and expertise to achieve a common goal together. 

Traditional organizations work in silos. The fact that we have different departments working on different office floors makes this “siloed-thinking” more apparent. You have your marketing team working hard to promote your products. The sales team driving purchases. Your product development team releases new products regularly. Your customer support team keeps your customers engaged. More departments are working independently. Sure, there are instances where they would interface and work together. But usually, it would just be to pass a report, a complaint, a suggestion, or a new idea. 

Agile and more innovative companies are finding the benefit of forming cross-functional teams because they can see more impact when teams are groomed to work together instead of independently or linearly. When you have a piece of every expertise in the room, just imagine how much ideas would flow and how fast you’ll get solutions out the door. 

Remember, Thanos’ defeat was not due to one Avenger’s effort alone. It was the collective effort of the team. Each Avenger contributed their skills and expertise on the battlefield.  

What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Cross-functional teams?

Building a cross-functional team certainly has its benefits. Here are some of the striking benefits of having cross-functional teams:

  • Faster decision-making
  • Improved collaboration and communication
  • Channel your team’s strengths
  • Faster delivery of solutions and products
  • More engaged employees

Building such a team will also come with challenges. And I’d like to think of them as challenges and not disadvantages because they can be overcome. Here are some of the challenges that you can expect when building a cross-functional team:

  • Takes time to build trust among team members
  • Restructuring teams may require a significant investment
  • Employees who join a cross-functional team may have challenges when returning to their home departments
  • Success is not 100% guaranteed.

It’s important to take note that while cross-functional teams can make promising results, it depends on a lot of factors. When you start a project with a cross-functional team, you are essentially experimenting. And as with any experiment, the outcome is not certain. An HBR study showed that 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional

How do we prevent cross-functional teams from being dysfunctional? Here are 7 tips to build an effective cross-functional team.

7 Tips to Build and Effective Cross-functional Team

Provide Strong Executive Support

The same HBR study noted that cross-functional teams that have strong support from senior or C-level management had a 76% success rate. This shows that clear governance and visible support from the top enables cross-functional teams. Have an executive sponsor in your projects and make sure they are kept informed of the team’s progress. Get their feedback. Have them interact with the team on certain milestones. The more your team sees their involvement, the more they will be motivated to succeed.

Build with Diverse Skills

Pull members from different backgrounds, skills, expertise, and functional know-how. Use your project goal to determine what skills and expertise you need to make the project work. Building with diversity in mind helps drive innovation and brings different perspectives to the table. 

Keep Everyone Aligned with the Company’s Goals

Everyone in your cross-functional team must know what they need to achieve and what they need to contribute to achieving it. Each team member should know how to channel their strengths to help the greater team achieve the company’s goals. Only when the vision is clear will the path be paved the right way. So at the start of your project, be specific about what your project objectives are. Be clear about what type of results you expect to see. This way, your cross-functional team can strategize on what they can make things happen. 

Equip the Team with the Right Tools

Like every soldier who goes to battle, you need your team to be armed with the right tools. You need to ensure they have access to the technology that they need to facilitate their work. In our modern world, more teams are becoming distributed and are working remotely. Make sure your teams have the right set of remote tools to enable continuous collaboration and communication. If needed, ensure they also have access to subject matter experts and coaches. You need to essentially create a conducive environment for your teams to have a higher chance at success.

Choose Your Leader

Just because you’re building a cross-functional team with diverse skills, doesn’t mean you don’t need someone to lead. Having a leader is very important for cross-functional teams, especially at the start of the process. It will take time for your team members to get comfortable with working together. You need a leader that can engage and encourage your team. In cross-functional teams, everyone needs to take responsibility and ownership. But you need someone who can take accountability for the project’s progress and eventual success. An effective cross-functional leader can instill accountability in each team member and develop leaders within the roster. 

Provide a Safe Space for Communication

As with any team, communication is key. But people will only open up and be comfortable to share their thoughts if they feel safe. Team members shouldn’t feel that they will be judged for their opinion. Everyone should be treated with respect. And when you achieve that level of trust within the team, you can expect more fluid discussions.

Regularly Review with the Team

Regular reviews or checkpoints allow you to assess whether your team is steering in the right direction. It also allows you to provide timely feedback on the work being done. When course corrections are needed, then your team can pivot or adjust immediately. It also allows your team to reflect on how they are doing and how they think things can be improved. You can do regular retrospectives with your team to facilitate this. 

Bring Down Your Organizational Silos with Cross-functional Teams

As company leaders, examine how you can introduce cross-functional collaboration within your organization. Breaking down those silos will open up new avenues for your company’s growth and development. There are tons of benefits to forming cross-functional teams. But it’s not just about getting people together. You need to select people who have an open mindset. Being in a cross-functional team can be challenging. You need people who can be flexible to changes, can handle uncertainty and are open to sharing their time, skills, and expertise with others. 

Being part of this kind of team will also be rewarding. You not only get to contribute to the company’s goals but you also learn from your peers and widen your understanding of how the company operates.

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About the Author: Lena Boiser

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Lena Boiser is an Agile enthusiast. Starting off her career as a Software Business Analyst in 2010, she eventually performed other roles including Project Manager and IT Business Manager. When she was immersed in Agile methodologies in 2014, Lena found her way through honing her craft and eventually became a Certified Scrum Product Owner. In 2017, after 7 years of working in the corporate world, Lena started her own remote consulting practice. Today, she provides project management and Scrum Product Ownership services to various businesses including software development companies, e-Commerce business owners, and small to medium sized companies. She believes that even teams working remotely can harness the benefits of Agile in order to deliver results for their companies. In her free time she likes to write. One day she could be writing about Agile, the next she could be writing anything about fashion or travel.

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