Although many organizations still operate in terms of distinctly siloed functions, the trend toward flattened, more distributed structures is accelerating. Cross-functional teams play an important role in facilitating that transition, serving as an intermediary between the hierarchical decision-making practices of the past and the more dynamic strategies of the future.
Cross-Functional Team Advantages
Cross-functional teams can help organizations respond quickly to changing circumstances and accelerate business processes by cutting across functional lines. Traditional structures often cause silos, making it difficult for information to flow smoothly and inhibiting collaboration. This can be especially problematic when it comes to developing products and implementing strategic initiatives because different departments may have conflicting priorities.
The main benefits of cross-functional teams come from breaking down those barriers and taking the key concerns of each department into consideration. For example, rather than developing a new product and passing it along to procurement, manufacturing, marketing, and then sales, a cross-functional team has an opportunity to incorporate those perspectives from the very beginning, which will ultimately reduce costs and accelerate time to market.
4 Ways to Maximize the Benefits of Cross-Functional Teams
Select the Right Team Members
Maximizing the benefits of a cross-functional team begins with selecting the right members for that team. Simply choosing the highest performers within a functional area won’t always result in the most suitable candidates since working in a cross-functional team presents some unique challenges. In the first place, there are no clear hierarchies or positions of authority within a cross-functional team, which can make it difficult for people to understand how accountability is structured and how information should flow.
Self-starters with a sense of initiative and who are comfortable with ambiguity tend to be a good fit for these teams. Strong interpersonal skills are beneficial since the team will need to build the working relationships that facilitate trust and effective cross-team communication. They should demonstrate agility and resilience to help overcome obstacles that any cross-functional team is likely to encounter. Unlike a traditional team, there won’t be a hierarchical support structure to fall back on when situations change; the team must often find its own solutions when challenges arise.
Set Shared Goals
One of the distinguishing qualities of any successful cross-functional team is its sense of purpose. If team members find that they’re not facilitating some form of collaborative work that wouldn’t be possible to do elsewhere, they may need to reassess what the team was intended to accomplish and make adjustments going forward. Developing shared goals is an important step in the formation of any cross-functional team. It allows team members to share their interpretations of the team’s goals collaboratively to determine the best way to achieve them. Employees won’t usually be spending all of their time working on a cross-functional team, so it’s important for them to have clear goals in mind so they can think about how the team might be impacted by other work that they’re doing.
Establish Clear Roles
One of the biggest challenges for cross-functional teams is the distributed nature of authority and decision making. It’s very possible that no one member of the team will have direct authority over other members. Even if they technically hold a management position, the rest of the team could be drawn from other departments, where they report to a different set of managers. The flexibility of a cross-functional team can quickly become a disadvantage if no one knows what they’re responsible for or how accountability will be enforced. Simply making decisions can become difficult, with team members endlessly debating a contentious issue in the misplaced hope of creating a final consensus.
When a cross-functional team is formed, it’s very important to establish clear roles and responsibilities very quickly. Even if no one person is recognized as the leader of the team, a process for involving stakeholder and making final decisions needs to be put in place. Establish who is responsible for what and laying out the consequences of not following through or delivering on expectations can help improve accountability. When team members trust others to fulfil their commitments, they’re more likely to follow through and avoid shifting blame if they fall short of expectations.
Effective collaboration across functions is impossible without a streamlined approach to communication. For a cross-functional team to operate effectively, members need to be able to bypass or overcome barriers. Going through traditional, hierarchical channels takes time and involves more people in the process, which makes it harder to exchange information and react to changing circumstances.
Cross-functional team members should be able to communicate directly with one another without having to involve people outside of their team. This can be especially challenging in an organization where each department has its own systems and processes in place. Teams may have to set up their own cross-team communication channels to allow them to share information and work collaboratively without impediments. This could involve project management software solutions (such as Teamwork) or workplace productivity applications (like Slack or Microsoft Teams). Empowering cross-functional teams to move and work quickly goes a long way toward unlocking their full potential.
Maximizing the benefits of cross-functional teams can be a challenge for organizations that don’t think far beyond the decision to form them. Effective collaboration doesn’t just happen on its own. Cross-functional teams need to be conceived, launched, and managed in ways that allow them to get the most out of their creative and adaptive potential. By remembering that these teams are intended to overcome existing impediments within an organization and implementing tools and strategies to help them overcome these barriers, companies can better realize cross-functional team advantages.