A cross functional team can improve a business’s ability to innovate, turn disruption into opportunity and maintain a competitive advantage in an increasingly crowded global marketplace. Cross functional teams saw a surge in popularity during the pandemic as organisations leveraged their capabilities to respond quickly to the changing environment around them – often with great success.
A cross functional team can be a fantastic asset to a business when done well, but it can be challenging to implement. In this article, we’ll examine the definition of a cross functional team, why they exist, and the benefits and challenges of cross functional teams. We’ll be looking at:
- What is a Cross Functional Team?
- Why Do They Exist?
- What are the Benefits of Cross Functional Teams?
- What are the Challenges of Working Cross Functionally?
- How to Create an Effective Cross Functional Team
A cross functional team is a group of people from different functional areas of a business brought together to work towards a common goal or objective.
Cross functional teams can include people from all over the business, including sales, marketing, IT, product, customer success, human resources and finance. They are sometimes described as ‘multidisciplinary’ or ‘interdisciplinary’.
These cross functional working groups include employees with different levels of seniority within the company and can sometimes have external members. They might be a supplier, consultants, customers or other important stakeholders, but they will usually hold critical skills or expertise to support the success of the cross functional team.
Often these teams will be given special decision-making power to overcome some of the usual barriers or obstacles they might usually encounter. For example, if the project is particularly important or time-sensitive, the team might report directly to the CEO rather than going through a formal approval or decision-making process.
The goal of cross functional teams is to bring together different perspectives to facilitate innovation or problem-solving.
Despite working towards a common goal, different departments within a business can often end up at odds with each other. For example, if marketing is focused on one vertical while the sales team’s energy is elsewhere, the product team might be faced with competing priorities.
A cross functional team can encourage collaboration, stop competition for resources and optimise the use of time and money to solve real business problems. These high-performance teams often produce better results faster.
Working cross functionally happens out of necessity in small businesses and start-ups simply because of their size. Still, in large companies, it is often leveraged to address a specific project or goal. In these cases, the business sets up a working group for people with specialised skills or expertise that will lend themselves to the problem at hand.
A cross functional team can operate efficiently by removing layers of approvals and stopping projects from moving from department to department. This means improved problem-solving and faster decision-making, leading to the more efficient development of a project or product.
Cross functional teams are also better placed to help organisations identify and resolve inefficiencies in their processes, drastically reducing both internal and external pain points.
More and more, innovation drives competitive advantage. And contrary to popular belief, it’s rare that innovation comes from individuals.
Combining different views, functional experience, knowledge and expertise, and collaboration is a hotbed for innovation. It’s also about the different viewpoints and information that each person can bring from their respective departments. Imagine the insights possible when data and information are shared and interpreted across the business.
Cross functional teams can help to realign focus, encouraging different groups to work together to share assets to achieve a common goal. In short, cross functional teams can put business goals and objectives back at the top of the agenda. They can focus on specific challenges and channel their enhanced access, resources, diverse perspective, broader skill sets and ideas to solving real business problems that will affect real change – in record time.
According to the Harvard Business Review, approximately 75% of cross functional teams are dysfunctional. There are plenty of challenges that face cross functional environments, from a lack of clear goals and objectives to breakdowns of communication that lead to competing priorities or obligations from its members.
Here are some of the challenges of cross functional working:
The position of ‘leader’ in cross-functioning teams is integral to their success. It is also a challenging one. Leaders must balance managing members from different disciplines while giving them the autonomy to make decisions. They must put the project’s success first, keeping the milestones and goals on track and monitoring their progress.
Cross functional team leadership needs to achieve a careful equilibrium that channels diverse input into one cohesive output while also securing and maintaining the support of stakeholders throughout the business.
Individuals from different departments may have yet to come across each other. They might have yet to build a working relationship and must start by creating a level of trust from scratch.
Cross-team working often goes against the structure of the businesses, so producing the right atmosphere and environment for successful cross functional collaboration can be challenging for many companies.
Communication is the foundation of a successful cross functional team. Without good communication, team members will likely compete against each other, prioritising their performance and potentially blaming one another for failures.
And it’s not just about communication within the group. It’s about effectively communicating with those outside of the team as well. Key to their success is buy-in from stakeholders; if this communication breaks down and support is lost, it can lead to blockers preventing the team from moving forward.
For innovation to exist, team members need to feel comfortable in an environment of camaraderie and confidence where they can voice and discuss ideas. Like trust, this kind of inter-team culture can be difficult to conjure for your new working group.
On top of this, within an organisation there is usually a corporate culture, but sub-cultures can form in the teams within it. Company and team culture are both critical to the success of a business but can sometimes create a challenge when starting a cross functional team.
Pre-existing team culture can be another obstacle to overcome in breaking down barriers for new co-workers to ensure they can collaborate effectively.
1) Pick the right team
When it comes to cross-functioning teams, the technical expertise of each member is essential, but they’ll also need other skills to be a valuable part of your team.
Think about each individual’s communication skills, decision-making power, critical thinking, ability to meet deadlines, and whatever else will be integral to your team’s success. Remember, with cross functional teams, it’s better to have one cohesive unit than many individual superstars.
It’s also essential to think about the diversity of your team. If everyone is from the same cultural, educational or professional background, it can be easy to continue with the same lines of thinking and potentially overlook the problem you’re trying to solve.
2) Elect a leader who understands its purpose
Cross functional teams need the backing of both the business and its business leaders. With strong governance and the support of high-level cross functional team leadership to monitor progress, challenge any blockers, and hold accountability, cross functional teams are more likely to succeed.
3) Set clear goals
It’s easy to begin a project in a cross functional environment without clear goals and objectives. But teams need these to succeed, alongside deadlines and milestones to keep the project on track.
A clearly defined goal will enhance the team’s productivity and cohesiveness as they work together to achieve a common purpose. It also makes it easier to track progress, re-evaluate and adjust where needed. The advantage of cross functional teams is that they are flexible by nature and can adapt quickly to change.
4) Establish ways of working
Like any new team, it is essential to outline a clear process to guide the team in their work. These should cover roles and responsibilities, guidelines about how the team will work together and the measures of success.
This should always include regular performance reviews to help the team remain effective. Leaving it until the end of the project means you can’t grow and improve throughout.
5) Communication is king
Communication can be more challenging with cross-team working, as members are often functionally and sometimes geographically distant. If your team can master good communication early on, it will stand them in good stead for success.
Communication should be open, honest and frequent to help break down any barriers between your team members. As individuals, they must feel heard, respected and understood to allow for the effective sharing of perspectives, ideas and knowledge.
6) Make sure you’ve got the right tools and resources
It might seem obvious, but cross functional environments need tools and resources like any other team. Before starting your project, it’s worth sitting down and thinking about all the extra details you’ll need to make your team a success. This can stretch from dedicated meeting rooms and communications technology to the latest productivity apps and performance trackers.
7) Keep your team feeling psychologically safe
Google used over 35 different statistical models on hundreds of variables to identify what makes a successful team. They found psychological safety to be the most important element.
According to Google, this refers to ‘an individual’s perception of the consequences of an interpersonal risk.’ In other words, how safe a team or individual feels to take a risk in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative or disruptive. Groups that feel psychologically safe felt confident to be vulnerable with one another and express new ideas without fear of punishment or embarrassment.
8) Remember why you started
Remember why you started the project and built the team around you. Stay adaptable to ensure you achieve your goals, and if you’re not having the success you projected, don’t be afraid to do something differently. Cross functional teams are established to challenge the status quo.