Companies have long been siloed off into distinct functions: marketing, sales, IT, operations, and so on. Each department is focused on its own tasks and responsibilities, seldom interacting with other people outside of the team. But as business culture and technology continue to evolve in the 21st century, the definition of a modern team has come to take on a new meaning.
Today, the world’s most successful companies no longer rely on outdated hierarchies or structures: they are diverse in background, skill, specialization, and experience. In this post, we’ll describe the main elements of a cross-functional team and the best practices for leading these teams.
What is a cross-functional team?
Cross-functional teams are groups of people from different levels or departments of the organization, united by a clear message or shared goals.
For example, instead of having a dedicated sales team, a company may instead create a specialized, self-managing team consisting of salespeople as well as programmers, service representatives, content creators, account executives, and others all working to generate more leads for a business.
Since cross-functional teams have members of various backgrounds, they can better communicate about particular bottlenecks in the process while collaborating on smarter or more efficient solutions.
Benefits of cross-functional teams
Working within a single department or division can stifle creativity and productivity. When teams are able to work with people across departments, there is more opportunity to learn new skills, to build a better understanding of the business as a whole, and to grow as an individual. Diverse teams lead to diverse ideas.
When different-minded people come together, true innovation is possible. In the mid-2000s, Cisco developed a cross-functional team to help develop more secure router lines. The team comprised of marketers, engineers, manufacturers, QA testers, and customer service representatives. While there were about 100 people attending meetings, there was also a “core group” of 20 people, as well as a leadership team. Cisco today is the number one router security vendor, thanks to successfully implementing a cross-functional system.
Heading a cross-functional team is a tremendous opportunity for any individual to improve their management skills and develop stronger leadership skills. This is because cross-functional leaders don’t just look at one aspect or area of a business (such as sales), but how every department is crucial to overall success. There are many moving parts, from suppliers and manufacturers to marketers and distributors, and being able to lead a team through such a large operation can be inspiring and deeply fulfilling.
Cross-functional team challenges
As one can imagine, cross-functional teams are not without their fair share of challenges. In his renowned leadership book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni identifies the top most common challenges of a team: Absence of Trust, Fear of Conflict, Lack of Commitment, Avoidance of Accountability, and Inattention to Results.
Absence of Trust
Trust is the foundation of any successful relationship. The same can be said for cross-functional teams— trust is what leads to better communication, stronger teamwork, and more successful results. But for people to trust each other, they must be willing to show vulnerability, something that people tend to equate with weakness instead of authenticity.
Fear of Conflict
Nobody likes getting into arguments with other people, it can be tiring and a major waste of time. But the greatest leaders understand that disagreement can be productive, even necessary. Because individual team members are so concerned over preserving the peace (Lencioni refers to as “artificial harmony”), the team as a whole may overlook important considerations or opportunities.
Lack of Commitment
Anyone can come up with ideas, but seeing them become reality requires commitment. Unfortunately, team members can be easily dismissive of new ideas, not fully understanding their potential, or simply not convinced they are worth the time. Lack of buy-in or commitment from the team can lead to members delivering half-baked results.
Avoidance of Accountability
At some point, team members must take full ownership of failure or shortcoming. It’s easy to blame others on the team, but to be accountable is a mark of true leadership. The same can be said for holding others accountable— it may seem ideal to keep positive friendships, accountability must come first in a team.
Inattention to Results
The ultimate dysfunction of a team is when the members care only about their own goals and outcomes, rather than that of the collective. For a team to truly operate as a team, they must set aside personal desires to focus on the group’s shared mission.
Cross-functional team building
With the benefits and challenges of a cross-functional organization in mind, one may wonder— how can I build my team to become cross-functional?
It starts with a kick-off meeting to create the team’s identity. What are the team’s goals? Which project should be prioritized above everything else? What values and principles would make for a clear decision-making process? These are just a few of the questions that leaders should be ready to ask. Clear goals are crucial to a team’s identity.
The other important consideration is communication. With so many people from different departments on one team, clarity and synchronicity are key. Develop processes that ensure each individual is heard, no matter how small the complaint. If the members are working remotely, then the team will need to rely more heavily on tools and technology to stay on the same page.
Beyond the initial meeting and the assurance of clear communication, leading a cross-functional team is like a giant experiment: you must learn by testing and trialing as you go along. Over time, you will come to understand each person’s strengths and weaknesses, and how the individual fits into the collective. You can then use this knowledge to improve your organizational process, your services, or products as a whole.