In today’s highly competitive global marketplace, organizations across every industry must ensure their operations run like a well-oiled machine or risk falling behind. But this is a challenging feat for many businesses, as a lack of visibility, collaboration, and trust lead to departmental silos.
Each team has their own obstacles, processes, tools, and goals. But even if they’re succeeding independently, they may unknowingly be undermining the efforts of other departments. Without alignment across each team, the organization cannot optimize its operations for greater efficiency and productivity.
In an effort to eliminate these pesky work silos, many organizations have started building cross-functional teams. But getting everyone on the same page (and keeping them there) isn’t always easy, as disorganization, lack of accountability, and difficulty resolving explosive conflicts threaten their ability to reap the team structure’s potential benefits.
To get it right, managers should implement some key strategies that empower their cross-functional team to thrive. Here, we’ll take a deep dive into some of the challenges leaders face as they develop and manage cross-functional teams, as well as 10 powerful strategies for overcoming them.
A cross-functional team is a group of individuals from various departments within an organization who work collectively to achieve a common goal. Their purpose is to break down the operational barriers between separate teams so that the organization can reach its objectives in a more efficient, holistic manner.
When built and managed properly, cross-functional teams offer several benefits to an organization, including:
Greater focus on company goals
Increased employee engagement
Efficient use of resources
Improved problem solving
Reduced project management cycle times
While the advantages of a cross-functional team are clear, it’s important to note that successful alignment is often difficult to achieve. In fact, over 75% of cross-functional teams are actually dysfunctional due to some common pervasive challenges.
Managers often struggle to overcome The Five Dysfunctions (coined by author Patrick Lencioni) as they strive to create and optimize their cross-functional teams:
Absence of trust - Many employees are afraid to own up to their mistakes or ask their managers or colleagues for a helping hand, as doing so leaves them vulnerable to criticism and judgment. Without trust, it’s difficult to diagnose the root cause of workflow issues or determine the best solution. But fostering an environment of trust that encourages team members to acknowledge their shortcomings and collaborate to find resolution—without pointing fingers or shifting blame—is tricky, and requires consistent reassurance from managers.
Fear of conflict - When trust is absent, team members are not confident in their ability to solve problems without risking their professional status or standing within the organization. Instead of feeling free to express their concerns, admit to their errors, or offer potential solutions, they avoid conflict altogether; and this only widens the gap between teams.
Lack of commitment - Highly engaged teams are 14% more productive than teams with low engagement, but if employees are hesitant to commit to a common goal, they’ll find it hard to remain engaged. This hesitance is a result of feeling as though their individual opinions and priorities don’t matter or that there’s a lack of strategic direction within the team. Workers don’t want to align themselves with team decisions when that team doesn’t know how to address conflict in a healthy way or needs myriad hour-long meetings to settle on a single choice.
Avoidance of accountability - If you’ve ever worked on a group project, then you know just how uncomfortable it can be to hold team members accountable for their efforts (or lack thereof). If employees don't have relationships with one another built on trust, respect, understanding, and a commitment to their collective success, they’ll likely fail to keep each other in check. This ultimately leads to workflow bottlenecks, subpar work, and resentments among colleagues.
Inattention to results - Successful cross-functional teams adopt an “all for one, one for all” mentality, where dedication to their common goals outweighs their desire for individual triumph. But this is a difficult mindset for employees to get behind; particularly in the corporate world, where many have been conditioned to embrace a dog-eat-dog approach. Instead of prioritizing the company’s objectives, workers get distracted by their individual professional aspirations, or by the performance metrics against which their own department is measured.
Building cross-team alignment doesn’t come without its growing pains, but there are some tried-and-true best practices for breaking down the barriers. Here are 10 powerful strategies managers can follow to ensure their cross-functional teams reach their goals:
At the core of any truly cross-functional team is strong communication, as their success relies on consistent sharing of perspectives, insights, and issues. Team leaders should be carefully chosen, and possess exceptional communication skills that enable them to lead by example. These individuals should have a proven track record of communicating among their own teams in a clear, effective, and efficient manner.
Communication is essential for just about every part of your business, but it’s especially crucial for cross-functional teams, as each departmental function often has its own terminology and concepts. While a cross-functional team might include individuals from the sales, marketing, finance, HR, and product teams, for example, employees in each department may not share the same understanding of team-specific lingo. A product developer might have very limited knowledge of how a sales pipeline works, but, within their cross-functional team, they may need to quickly learn its ins and outs to complete a particular project.
Team leaders should be able to identify potential areas of confusion or ambiguity and encourage everyone to communicate with patience and empathy. They should actively work to dispel any fear their team members may have of asking basic questions regarding unfamiliar concepts and should document and share definitions of commonly used jargon. That way, they can help ensure everyone is engaged, well-informed, and ready to perform at their best.
The people who make up your organization as a whole should reflect the world around them, each with different backgrounds, perspectives, experiences, and values. A strong cross-functional team should represent that same level of diversity, with individuals from different races, genders, locations, skills, seniority, ages, and more.
80% of people report wanting to work for a company that values diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, as they’re vital to a healthy work environment. As you establish your team, make sure you intentionally choose employees who bring unique qualities to the table; as doing so will demonstrate your commitment to your workers’ sense of belonging and experience of fairness at your company. Plus, the more diverse your cross-functional team, the more valuable, distinct voices and outlooks can contribute to problem-solving and strategy execution.
Every person on your cross-functional team will bring with them a set of distinct strengths, so put those skills to use. Perhaps you have an operations manager who has developed and tweaked your organization’s critical processes since its inception. This person is uniquely positioned to offer first-hand advice to other cross-functional team members about how to reduce workflow inefficiencies or adjust their own processes to better suit the big picture.
Knowledge sharing is absolutely paramount to your cross-functional team’s success, so be sure to involve specialists from each function across the business who can help others to avoid their previous mistakes and emulate their wins.
Your cross-functional team isn’t going to get very far without a clear roadmap that tells them where they’re going. At the onset of your team’s formation (or at the beginning of a new project), be sure to outline exactly what you want the team to achieve, and put it in writing. Establish transparent expectations of each team member, so everyone knows what they’re responsible for and when it’s due.
It’s equally important to communicate how each team member’s effort will contribute to the company’s overall success, since doing so will keep them engaged in and committed to the team’s mission. Take the time to set milestones that reflect individuals’ progress as they inch closer to those larger goals, and demonstrate your appreciation along the way. After all, 44% of employees say they’d switch jobs if they didn’t receive adequate recognition, so showing your team members some praise is in your company’s best interest.
Remember: Cross-functional team members don’t want to commit to ambiguity or confusion, and they certainly don’t want to be bogged down by time-consuming meetings where nothing gets done. They want to be part of a confident team that can make swift decisions, as needed.
One way to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your team’s decision-making process is by leveraging tools that connect all of your data in one place. That way, your team won’t need to waste time re-entering data into separate systems, sharing individual updates between each department, or unifying information to account for different business contexts. They can instead access their progress and other insights in real-time for data-driven decisions that don’t require countless meetings.
In 2012, Google began a project called Aristotle to study the secrets of effective teams. The study found that “psychological safety” was the number one factor of a high-performing team. Psychological safety is the perceived consequences — like being viewed as incompetent, ignorant, disruptive, or negative — of taking an interpersonal risk. On a team with high psychological safety, an individual feels as though they can share their concerns, express their opinions, or own up to a mistake without fearing that their peers will ridicule or punish them.
This is an important concept as we recall that cross-functional teams frequently struggle to build trust or face conflict. To overcome those obstacles, managers should ensure their teams’ psychological safety by creating a stable, supportive environment. They should speak to each team member one-on-one and encourage them to be vulnerable with their peers; and reassure them on a regular basis.
Conflict is a reality for any professional team, and the friction can be even more evident on cross-functional teams. Keep in mind, these team members primarily work in various departments, each with its own goals, priorities, and issues, so bringing them together can sometimes spark competition and dissension.
But conflict isn’t always a totally negative facet of the cross-functional team structure: In fact, when handled correctly, conflict provides a great opportunity for respectful problem-solving and interpersonal relationship-building. Plus, a strong conflict resolution framework will inspire team members to speak openly and honestly when they have differing opinions, rather than holding it in and becoming bitter or resentful towards their peers.
As you build out your team, empower individuals with a clear framework to follow when things start to get combative. Provide detailed examples that demonstrate how they should handle disagreements, and encourage them to work out their differences with empathy and understanding instead of sweeping them under the rug. This permission to fix peer-to-peer issues in a structured, healthy way will help team members strengthen their bonds to become a more cohesive unit.
In addition to selecting highly communicative team leaders, it’s also essential to encourage consistent, effective communication among other members, too. Many of the individuals on a cross-functional team don’t interact with one another on a regular basis, so it’s important to find ways to open up the channels for collaboration.
Company chat applications (like Slack) are a great start, since they allow team members to seamlessly communicate, regardless of where they’re located. But they also need more comprehensive tools that help them align their goals and timelines—and quickly access their communication histories—without needing to constantly send messages back and forth.
Some modern platforms act as a central hub for both internal and external alignment, so team members can create, update, and collaborate with one another in a single place. They offer clarity to otherwise confusing activities, so cross-functional teams can work as efficiently as possible toward the same goals.
Cross-functional team members already have their own daily work on their plates, so the last thought a relevant meeting should provoke is “This really could have been an email.” While cross-functional success is beneficial to every team across the organization, managers should remember that they do require a bit more effort on the part of participating members, so meetings should be kept short and sweet.
One way to ensure your cross-functional team meetings aren’t excessively long is to prioritize problem-solving instead of open-ended discussions. Individuals should prepare for meetings by identifying specific issues and writing down a few potential solutions, then sharing them with the group ahead of time. This will give everyone a chance to ruminate on the best course of action, and consider how they can contribute to the resolution.
Whether you’re creating a cross-functional team to execute a specific project or to work together on a long-term, ongoing basis, it’s important to remain flexible and adaptable. Team members from each department will continue to build upon their knowledge of other business functions, which will enable them to provide feedback about their operational efficacy.
Managers shouldn’t be too hyper-focused on their first iteration of the team. They should carefully evaluate progress and performance, and tweak the team’s processes, expectations, and even the tools they use to improve their outcomes. If, for instance, the team is struggling to meet deadlines or deliver high-quality work, the manager may need to recruit more members or adjust timelines moving forward.
Cross-functional teams can help your organization maximize collaboration and efficiency for improved operations and, ultimately, increased revenue. But building and managing a cross-functional team can be a complex, time-consuming endeavor if you don’t have the proper tools for support.
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