By: Liz Sheffield
People often ask organizational design professionals to provide a “cross functional teams” definition. A cross-functional team is best described as a group of people with different functional expertise. Organizations create cross-functional teams to leverage the subject matter expertise each individual brings to a project or problem. Ideally, by bringing people from different departments together, these team members are able to streamline processes, save time and achieve a common goal that benefits the organization.
While cross-functional teams can achieve great results, they can also experience challenges. If the right project management methods and metrics aren’t in place, it’s more difficult for these teams–like any team–to achieve results. In a study of 95 cross-functional teams, Harvard Business Review (HBR) reported that 76 percent of the teams failed.
“Cross-functional teams often fail because the organization lacks a systemic approach. Teams are hurt by unclear governance, by a lack of accountability, by goals that lack specificity, and by organizations’ failure to prioritize the success of cross-functional projects,” according to HBR.
Indeed, to be successful, cross-functional teams need the structure and commitment that typical teams require. To be effective, teams require established methods of communication, decision-making and problem-solving, as well as a sense of trust among members and clear goals. With planning and systematic processes in place, organizations will leverage the value these innovative teams offer.
What Is a Cross-Functional Team?
Historically, most organizations have used a vertical approach, with each group or business area separated by their specialty or focus. For example, the operations team is separate from the human resources team. This singular approach is sometimes necessary, when a topic or issue doesn’t require input from multiple viewpoints.
But this separate approach can cause issues due to lack of collaboration and integration. Without input from a variety of perspectives, it’s also more likely that employees will be limited by mutually-shared perspectives, rather than benefiting from the inspiration that comes from diversity of thought and experience.
By design, a cross-functional teams definition often reinforces the idea that it’s temporary. In many cases, cross-functional teams are created to solve a specific problem or achieve a time-sensitive goal. They may last for a few years, depending on the scope of a project or initiative. Typically, once the goal is achieved, or a project is complete, the team disperses or is reconfigured to meet new goals, such as the implementation of a new system or software.
Some companies are designed around the idea of cross-functional teams. In those organizations, employees with specific expertise report to different managers to share their expertise throughout the organization. For example, a finance expert and IT professional may be assigned to work cross-functionally with the strategy group to provide input that supports the work of that department.
“By working through teams as opposed to large departmental silos, you not only cross-pollinate perspectives and experiences (which help shape creativity and innovation) but also align daily behaviors with business strategies,” according to Forbes.
For example, if there’s a need to implement a new talent management software, organizations may be tempted to assign that task solely to the HR department. That approach makes sense because HR professionals are the talent experts. However, if an organization uses a cross-functional team approach, it could leverage expertise from the finance team about the budget for a new system, insight from operations regarding how to make it easy for frontline managers to use the system, as well as knowledge from the IT department about technology requirements.
In this scenario, a cross-functional team would include HR team members as well as employees from finance, operations, and IT. As collaborative partners, this cross-functional group could create a well-informed strategy that addresses all elements of the business, and which is based on the unique needs and perspectives of each group. In addition, the cross-functional team would help eliminate redundancies and inefficiencies that occur when departments don’t communicate.
One of the biggest cross-functional team benefits is the ability to squelch “groupthink.” Psychology Today describes groupthink as the situation which “occurs when a group of well-intentioned people make irrational or non-optimal decisions that are spurred by the urge to conform or the discouragement of dissent.”
When you put together a group of people with the same background, or who are from the same department, they may experience groupthink. In turn, this reduces the possibility for creativity. Because they are made up of a diverse group of employees, cross-functional teams help reduce groupthink and inspire innovative problem-solving.
Regardless of whether you’re considering cross-functional teams for temporary needs or longer-term assignments, you need to be intentional about how you create and manage the team.
Four Steps to Create a Successful Cross-Functional Team
It’s one thing to understand that there’s value in creating cross-functional teams, but how do you do so in a way that sets the team, and its team members up for success? Here are four steps to help you in the process of creating a cross-functional team.
Step 1: Assemble the right team
Just like a sports team or a typical work team, you need to have the right people who can make a positive impact. Choose a team that represents workplace diversity in their perspectives and experiences, as well as people who are known to be collaborative, independent self-starters.
Select people who express an interest in partnering with other departments or whom you suspect will be comfortable working cross-functionally. The HBR research found that one common reason cross-functional teams didn’t succeed was that “siloes tend to perpetuate themselves: for example, engineers don’t work well with designers, and so on.”
Step 2: Choose a team leader
Regardless of type, teams need a leader. Cross-functional teams are no exception. As you gather a team, identify who will be the team leader. This person will offer leadership guidance such as assigning and delegating tasks. As needed, the leader will also be responsible for holding team members accountable, while giving them autonomy.
A common challenge cross-functional groups face is difficulty making decisions. It’s important to not only select a leader, but also to determine who has the authority to make decisions as well as establish an escalation process if the team leader is not able to facilitate agreement between members of the team.
Step 3: Define clear goals and objectives
Even before the project kick-off, you want to have clearly defined goals and objectives for the cross-functional team. Make sure that all stakeholders are aligned with the outcomes and expectations for the team. The way you set up this team should reflect and support your company culture; if possible, highlight how the power of this cross-functional team is that it represents the organization as a whole.
As the team starts working together, allow time for team members to discuss, digest, and grasp the scope of the goals and objectives. Conduct regular goal-setting sessions for all phases of projects, as well as for ongoing work. Ensure that the team engages in weekly meetings to discuss timing, budgets and any obstacles to meeting goals.
Step 4: Embrace automation
Automation and technological tools offer powerful ways for cross-functional teams to communicate and collaborate effectively. Because they are dispersed across departments, it’s even more imperative that cross-functional teams have established effective ways to communicate with each other. Technology can assist with not only tracking progress but also offering a platform that team members can use to communicate about their work. Use your employee communication software to keep the cross-functional team, as well as department leaders and all members of the organization, informed about relevant updates and team progress.
Cross-Functional Team Benefits
Cross-functional teams are a great way to integrate a company across teams and allow for collaboration outside the typical siloed departmental framework. They also offer a way to enhance feelings of psychological safety in an organization, as cross-functional team members have a unique opportunity to speak up and share ideas in a new, welcoming environment outside their departmental team. In place of organizations built on vertical hierarchy, today’s smaller, more agile cross-functional teams are helping their organizations achieve their goals. Employees, as well as your entire organization, will benefit from the sense of employee engagement created by the collaboration between departments, deeper working relationships between colleagues, and the satisfaction that comes when employees are able to directly link the work of their cross-functional team to achieving organizational goals.