Organizations across every industry often struggle to achieve and maintain the visibility and collaboration required for success. Their departments operate in individual silos, which results in a lack of collective focus on overall company goals. Employees working on these segmented teams unwittingly undermine one another’s efforts or work in conflict.
To remedy these operational issues, modern organizations have started making intentional improvements to better align their departments. Instead of treating each as a separate entity that plays an isolated role within the company, they’re building cross functional teams that work cohesively toward common objectives.
Here, we’ll discuss how cross functional teams can offer a competitive advantage, some challenges they typically face, and best practices for implementing this collaborative approach.
A cross functional team is a group of individuals from different departments (e.g. sales, marketing, finance, HR, etc.) who combine forces to attain a particular goal. Some organizations use cross functional teams to execute specific projects, while others rely on them on an ongoing, long-term basis.
Cross functional teams are especially crucial for ensuring a consistent, high-quality customer experience. While it’s undoubtedly true that siloed departments create a frustrating, ineffective, and unproductive working dynamic for employees, their negative impact is abundantly evident within the customers’ perspective.
If, for example, your sales and marketing teams are misaligned, it can cause your customer experience to suffer in a variety of ways:
Since 32% of buyers will walk away from a brand after a single bad experience, and 86% will pay more for a great customer experience, a cross functional approach can become your organization’s competitive differentiator.
It’s important to note that inadequate alignment between sales and marketing isn’t the only snag in ensuring efficient internal operations and excellent customer experiences. Organizations should also synchronize the efforts of their operations, HR, finance, and product departments, as well as the specific roles within each of those teams.
The account executives and sales development representatives at your company, for example, may work in the same department; but if they don’t have integrated communication, frameworks, tools, and resources, they’ll likely find it difficult to solve problems efficiently or optimize their workflows for success.
Because a cross-functional approach leverages the strengths of each department and eliminates the silos that hinder productivity and efficiency, a successful implementation offers several key benefits:
When each team is working independently of one another, it’s difficult—if not impossible—to identify and ameliorate the process and workflow issues that are slowing them down. Cross-functional teams, though, adopt an “all for one, one for all” mindset that helps them uncover operational problems and brainstorm potential solutions. Each department brings a unique experience and perspective to the table, so everyone can work together to fine-tune their critical processes as quickly and effectively as possible.
This is also true for product innovation: no singular team has ubiquitous knowledge of what contributes to success or failure. Sales teams can combine their understanding of customers with marketing’s campaign insights, operation’s resource knowledge, finance’s budgeting acumen, and more for better-informed product decisions.
Siloed teams often only prioritize the goals and objectives that are specific to their individual success. Sales teams, for instance, might focus solely on landing as many new clients as possible, while failing to acknowledge the burden this places on the shoulders of their marketing team. HR might seek to hire as many new sellers as possible in an effort to quickly scale, but sales managers may not be able to keep up with onboarding and training while still executing other essential strategies.
Cross-functional teams consistently establish common goals across each department and determine how each will work towards those objectives without conflict. Not only does this ensure everyone is aiming at the same target, but it also helps them to reach that goal faster and boost morale.
Operating in silos can sometimes feel like you’re taking one step forward and two steps back: Marketing might develop a killer campaign only to find out there are seasonal sales fluctuations that will render their efforts all but useless.
With a cross-functional approach, marketing and sales would work alongside one another throughout the campaign’s development, and identify this obstacle early on. Then, they would adjust their strategy to better align with sales’ insights, helping them to work more efficiently without wasting precious time and resources.
Excessive cycle times are an unfortunate reality for organizations in many industries, especially those in the B2B sales world. Complex processes and a lack of alignment only exacerbate the problem, as different teams often don’t have access to the right information when they need it—leading to wasted time and even longer cycles.
This is true for cycle times across the entire organization. The product team, for example, might be working independently to develop a new product or feature that they think will impress new and existing customers alike. Meanwhile, the sales team has intimate knowledge of what their customers really want, but fails to share these insights with the product team. The result is a slower product development cycle and, potentially, a finished product or feature that doesn’t actually meet customer demand.
In a cross functional team scenario, the two departments would work together (along with marketing, operations, finance, etc.) to more quickly and efficiently develop a product that actually resolves common customer pain points. The cycle time is greatly reduced, and the organization can get the product up and running while also ensuring a better customer experience.
While there is certainly great value in building a cross functional team, getting it right isn’t a guarantee. In fact, over 75% of cross functional teams are actually dysfunctional.
As organizations attempt to improve visibility, collaboration, and efficiency through a cross functional structure, they’re faced with several challenges that threaten their success:
Cross-functional teams are all about recognizing the strengths of each department and giving equal weight to their concerns, goals, and value. But this gets tricky when it comes to establishing who’s in charge. Departmental managers and leaders already have a lot on their plates, but less experienced employees may not have the insights required to represent their teams’ functions.
What typically happens is that higher-level employees (like executives or directors) from each department will start out as the leaders of the cross-functional team, then delegate the task to their subordinates once it proves too time-intensive. But these team members are often super focused on their specific team’s objectives and simply can’t see the bigger picture, leading to misalignment, interdepartmental conflict, and a lack of strategic direction.
To address this challenge, organizations should encourage their leaders to take an active role in their cross-functional teams. They should include the participation and success of their cross-functional initiatives as a performance metric for those higher-level roles, so leaders have a vested interest in keeping their eyes on company-wide goals (rather than their teams’ individual objectives alone).
Your organization can push for cross-functional teams until the cows come home, but—simply put—without the right tools for support, you’re not going to get the results you want. A cross-functional approach is meant to make your teams’ jobs easier, not burden them with extra work; so if the tools they use are disjointed or difficult to navigate, you should either lower your expectations or invest in better solutions.
If, for example, your sales and marketing teams are using a whole slew of tools to perform their work and none of them are connected, they can’t gain a holistic understanding of their collaborative efforts. They’ll waste time re-entering data into those disconnected systems and will always be one step behind those insights, as data is ever-changing.
To become truly cross-functional, your teams need tools that communicate with one another and are always up-to-date. Technology should make sharing insights, developing collaborative strategies, and coordinating projects and activities seamless and easily scalable as your organization grows.
Employees in every department of your organization are already (hopefully) busy tending to their own tasks. The exact last thing they want or need is to be inundated by drawn-out, ineffective meetings that take precious time away from their individual functions. While it’s true that a weekly—or even daily—email isn’t enough to ensure cross-functional team success, lengthy meetings that lack direction won’t do much more than frustrate your employees.
Instead of conducting meetings where every participant shares every little bit of information they deem important, focus on problem-solving. Encourage team members to come to the table with specific issues and potential solutions, along with suggestions for how their colleagues can help. Then, create action-driven plans that will empower them to efficiently achieve those intended outcomes.
The right tools can help with this, too. Instead of sending out a post-meeting email with a list of follow-up actions and assignments, try using software that enables leaders to quickly assign tasks to individuals. Some solutions even send automatic reminders as deadlines approach, so nothing falls through the cracks.
Now that we’ve gained a deeper understanding of potential pitfalls, let’s take a look at some best practices for building an effective, efficient cross-functional team:
If your organization hasn’t done so already, it’s time to start prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. It’s an absolutely crucial part of any healthy work culture, and it’s also incredibly beneficial to your business. DEI is also important to retaining top talent. Nearly 80 percent of workers want to work for a company that values diversity, equity, and inclusion. They also want to know their employer will speak up when it matters; according to Forrester, 82 percent of sales leaders expect their CEO to take a stand on social issues.
Diversity should be a major focus as you build your cross-functional team, and it shouldn’t just be limited to experience or tenure. Make sure the team you develop is diverse in age, race, status, gender, skill, expertise, race, background, and more. That way, you’ll ensure a variety of perspectives, backgrounds, understanding, and values, each of which will contribute to a more knowledgeable and cohesive operation.
As we previously mentioned, strong leadership is vital to the success of your cross-functional team. Get buy-in from leadership by communicating the value of interdepartmental collaboration and tying the impact of your cross-functional team to the performance of its leaders. Be sure to hold those leaders accountable for their participation and commitment to the team, and encourage them to lead by example.
Before your cross-functional team can hit the ground running, they need a clear plan of action. Simply identifying issues and recommending solutions won’t do the trick: The team needs to understand each step they’ll need to take to succeed. Outline specific objectives, allocate the proper resources, set clear milestones, and establish firm deadlines for both individuals and broader teams.
Make sure the tools your team uses to track and measure their progress are powerful enough to keep them accountable. Each employee should be able to easily access and understand key steps, deliverables, and deadlines so nothing gums up the team’s workflow.
While it’s important to have leaders who guide conversations and act as authoritative figures, it’s equally essential to foster an environment where everyone feels heard. From day one, every team member from every level should know their opinions are valid and valued. Leaders should always be open to feedback and be willing to adjust their strategies based on various viewpoints.
As is the case on any team, conflicts will inevitably arise in a cross-functional working environment. In fact, they usually occur more frequently in cross-functional teams, as each participant has competing perspectives, goals, and ideas. Leaders should get ahead of any issues that might otherwise derail productivity by creating a framework for healthy resolution and offering training at the onset of the team’s development. They should also create opportunities for relationship-building and improved morale by hosting team events, playing games, and conducting trust exercises.
Flexibility and adaptability are both key to your cross-functional team’s success. If team members aren’t meeting their deadlines, you’re not meeting your goals when you think you should be, or an excessive amount of conflicts are arising, it may be time to rethink things. Effective cross-functional teams know that nothing is set in stone, and sometimes minor tweaks can make a world of difference.
Transparency and collaboration are vital for an effective, efficient operation; and building a cross-functional team can help your company inch closer to its goals. But while building a culture of accountability, trust, and psychological safety is key, both growing and enterprise-level teams need a system that gives their organization visibility into what’s going on in their pipeline.