In 2015, researcher Behnam Tabrizi found that nearly 75% of the cross-functional teams in 25 leading corporations were dysfunctional. They weren’t meeting their budgets. People were behind schedule, and nobody was following specifications or meeting customer expectations. In short, most companies weren’t able to reap the full benefits of cross-functional teams.
After all, the idea of a cross-functional team is simple. If your company needs a variety of different skills to accomplish a project, it makes sense to form a working group of people from different departments or units. This way you can draw on the expertise of each section of your company. But in reality, cross functional teams face four major challenges that make it difficult for them to get off the ground.
Different departmental needs and priorities:
Most companies separate their departments and teams by their roles and backgrounds. In turn, these different departments often have different goals, targets, and performance expectations that can conflict with each other. For example, Marketing is often on tight deadlines to design and roll out the next campaign. But Finances may be deep in a quarterly audit and refuse to spend time approving Marketing’s requested changes to their budget until two weeks after the deadline.
Not only can these conflicts recreate themselves within a cross-functional team, members of cross-functional teams are often not dedicated full-time to the project. This means that department managers or team leaders will often ask their employees to focus first on their day-to-day work and meeting their department’s or team’s targets before working on their cross-functional project. If each member of the cross-functional team faces this same challenge, it can significantly slow down the project. And if the cross-functional team starts missing their milestones or losing focus, then members can easily become disillusioned and disengaged with the process.
Insufficient or mismatched skills:
The entire purpose of a cross-functional team is to bring together the best skill sets of each department to creatively deliver a project. However, following on from Challenge 1, managers usually select team members to join a cross-functional team on the basis that they currently have the lightest workload. More rarely, they may be chosen simply because they have the most years of specialized departmental expertise required.
Unfortunately, selecting cross-functional team members on either of these grounds does not guarantee they have the most important skills necessary for a cross-functional team’s success: fantastic communication skills and the ability to work well in a different team. This means that a cross-functional team can be hampered from the beginning by having the wrong team members.
Agreeing on a direction:
A cross-functional team must be able to fundamentally agree upon and work toward the same goal together. This can be difficult with the naturally conflicting priorities of each team member. For example, a member of the Sales team may focus on the fact that the company’s customers want a new product now, and prioritize speed to market. However, the Product Development Engineer, who understands all the technical challenges facing the product, is more likely to insist upon careful testing at every stage. At the same time, a senior employee with corporate governance experience may want to pause the whole project until all the legal risks are examined and covered, to save company time and resources.
While this sort of conflict is exactly what makes cross-functional teams so valuable, as they can help to incorporate numerous perspectives and values, it can also dramatically bog down the team as they argue about their different priorities.
Finally, thanks to psychologist Bruce Tuckman’s work, we know that each team generally goes through five stages of development: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning. These stages mean that it takes time and effort to transform a group of strangers into a united team, which can be even more difficult when the individual team members have fundamentally different perspectives and values. Again, while these different views can make cross-functional teams highly successful, they are also a recipe for conflict and disaster if not managed properly.
3 Essential Stages of Cross-Functional Teams
It’s clear that cross-functional teams face a number of challenges even before they get started.
So how do you tackle these challenges, and get your team through stages of Forming, Storming, and Norming to Performing?
A good start is to make sure each department and team are fully behind the cross-functional team’s project. Explain the value of the work and how they will each benefit from it. Then reflect the cross-functional team’s goals in each department’s targets to make them responsible for the success of the cross-functional team. Ideally, have at least a few employees dedicated to the cross-functional team full-time, so that they can keep things going as other employees come in and out as their departments’ schedules allow them. Alternatively, work with your departments and teams to ensure their members can set aside particular times or days to dedicate fully to the cross-functional team project.
Tip: Use Status.net to make your cross-functional team’s reports visible to all department managers and team leaders to promote transparency and better coordination.
In terms of selecting the right team members for your cross-functional team, it also helps to maintain up-to-date skill profiles of all your employees. Profile information should include the employee’s main strengths, work-related experiences, and communication skills. And besides selecting for expertise, ensure team members also prove communication skills and the ability to do team work.
All teams will experience conflict, particularly cross-functional teams with their different values and experience. The key is to have set processes in place to deal with this conflict. One way to set these processes is to ask the team to brainstorm them together at the start (with some guidance from their team leader), to ensure that everyone feels they are fair. This could include tactics such as asking two arguing team members to switch perspectives and try arguing from the other team member’s point of view, or referring back to an agreed set of norms and principles.
Alternatively, if the team itself cannot agree on a particular point, then the team leader could bring in a third party mediator to offer some fresh perspective and impartiality. Encourage your team to choose at least two internal and external conflict resolution processes so that they have a good range of tools to address internal arguments.
Similarly, you should encourage cross-functional team members to agree on the key rules or ‘norms’ that will govern the way the team works from the start. These rules can include how meetings are run and how to fairly divide tasks and responsibilities. However, be careful not to lock your team in too rigidly to these initial rules or norms, as circumstances will undoubtedly evolve or change through the course of a project. To address this, you should ensure that your team also decides on a process allowing them to fairly amend the rules when circumstances change or they discover a better option.
Part of ‘Norming’ is also ensuring that everyone is on the same page about the team’s goals and objectives, including why each team member has selected and the specific nature of their roles.
Tip: For public team-wide weekly updates, encourage your team members to describe the reasoning behind their actions.This is especially important to help cross-functional team members with different backgrounds and expertise to learn to understand each other. Depending on your cross-functional team’s goals and dynamics, the team leader may also consider using daily updates:
7 Proven Techniques to Improve Cross-Functional Team Collaboration and Communication
So you’ve managed to help your cross-functional team make it through the first two stages of Forming and Storming. Now how do you get them from the comfortable Norming stage to achieving your company’s goals?
How does your team become one of those top 25% cross functional teams who are successful?
Ensure team members start with an understanding of their responsibilities and how their work contributes toward the greater team goals. Not only will this keep everyone accountable and set boundaries of responsibility to discourage needless conflict, it will also let team members know when to lend each other a hand as deadlines near.
Write down and confirm assumptions.
When you’re setting out the project’s goals and objectives, make sure the team dissects and understands the built-in assumptions at each stage and milestone. Your team members’ different backgrounds and expertise mean that some members may assume that the rest of the team has the same specialized knowledge or understands the same jargon. That’s why it is important to have each team member explain the reasoning behind his or her decisions and to thoroughly step through each stage of the project.
Ensure the team has a strong leader.
Every team needs a good leader, but cross-functional teams, in particular, need a strong leader to keep the team together and communication so they can overcome their many challenges. However, it’s important to note that ‘strong leader’ doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be intimidating or authoritative. They could also be a fantastic facilitator who helps to smooth over the inevitable conflicts, or a great motivator who specializes in keeping each team member engaged even when they are frustrated.
Equip the team with good communication tools.
The main advantages of cross-functional teams come from collaboration and shared expertise. So help your team to communicate by providing them with the right tools. A way to do this in Status is to create specific topics for posting updates, discuss matters and share learning.
Give your cross-functional team members access to a large knowledge base.
Ensure each team member can draw upon knowledge from across the company, including specialized topics from each department. You can do this by adding them to relevant Status topics to learn different skills and better understand team members.
Encourage both professional and personal communication.
Successful communication is understanding how somebody thinks, therefore the best way to listen, work with, and explain concepts to them. So encourage your team members to communicate on both a professional and a personal level so that they get to know one another, including their working styles, interests, and values. After all, the more they know each other, the more they can defuse conflict and work seamlessly together.
Create team retrospectives and reward teamwork.
Team retrospectives encourage members to reflect on what went well and what can be improved, helping them to take their learning to the next stage of the project. Team retrospectives are also especially helpful in managing differences, leveraging on past successes, and keeping team members engaged as they face the many challenges of a cross-functional team. Asking your team members to specifically reflect on other members of the team who helped them also has the benefit of rewarding good team players and promoting collaboration.
Given the number of challenges that cross-functional teams face, the fact that nearly 75% of the cross-functional teams that Tabrizi studied were dysfunctional is sobering, but not surprising. However, facing down and overcoming these challenges can be incredibly rewarding. Handpicking a team of experts across your company’s departments ensures your company is using its depth and breadth of knowledge. And cross-functional teams also encourage your company’s departments to collaborate and share information, helping to break down silos and improve interdepartmental communication.