One of the greatest concepts business veterans have devised in recent memory is the cross-functional team—but it is often also one of the ideas that fails most spectacularly in practice. The notion of building a team using individuals from across the business is a good one: the whole organization is represented by a small, talented group and each person brings different skills, abilities, and perspectives to the table. The beauty of a cross-functional team is its diversity. But that is also its challenge.
Challenges of Cross-Functional Teams
On its face, building a team of this type seems pretty straightforward: define your goals, identify the business units or functions that need to be involved, make sure the people invited to participate on the team are smart and capable in their respective areas of expertise, and set them to work. But it’s just not that easy.
The problem, of course, is that different functions of the business often have competing priorities, and members of those different functions are likely to be most loyal to the needs of their specific departments—not to the goals of the cross-functional team. Even within departments, certain personalities clash, and when cross-departmental competition is added to the mix, team dynamics suddenly become even more complex.
What Makes a Cross-Functional Team Successful?
Purpose and Impartial Leadership
As such, it is crucial for the cross-functional team to have a clear, compelling purpose and for it to be led by an impartial leader—someone who is loyal only to the goals of the team, not to any one single department or person. If possible, it is best if this team sponsor is also a senior leader. By asking a well-respected but neutral outside party to lead the team, no one department will be given more power (either perceived or real). The team will also have a person to report to directly and consistently, making it easier to gauge the team’s progress and help it overcome obstacles as needed.
Team Goals Align with Business Goals
When setting up a cross-functional team, it is imperative that the goals of the team align with the goals of the overall business. Each member of the team should be able to easily see how his or her contributions to and presence on the cross-functional team benefits not only the shorter-term project that the team has been tasked with completing, but also the larger goals of the organization. When people are clear on how making department-level concessions and actively collaborating with other members of the organization will benefit the entire business, they are more likely to personally commit to the team’s goals and be willing to engage in a little give and take.
That said, no one department should feel like it is being asked to give up everything, while another department represented on the cross-functional team is seemingly asked to give up nothing. This will create a tense, resentful atmosphere among team members and will do nothing to push the goals of the cross-functional team forward (and may actually destroy any team camaraderie that exists).
Clearly Defined Team Roles
It is also essential that the role of each person on the team is clearly defined up front. Each team member should have a very clear understanding of why he or she has been asked to be part of the team. What does he or she contribute to the collective whole? What talents does he or she offer that will benefit the team and the business overall? How will each team member support the team’s purpose and ultimate objectives? In addition to clarifying the team’s overall purpose and reasons for its specific structure, the team needs to establish and agree upon members’ expectations for working together successfully, as well as mechanisms for holding team members accountable when they break team protocol or simply refuse to follow it.
The work that members of cross-functional teams do together can be truly astonishing, providing new perspectives, innovative ideas, creative thinking, and blended solutions to big business problems. With a little forethought and a few safeguards in place, the organization will benefit from all the rewards that true cross-functional team collaboration offers.