Five Tips for Making the Most of Cross-Functional Teams

The benefits of tearing down silos and getting your people to work cross-functionally to solve problems are well established. Better ideas, more creativity and innovation, better implementations, more employee buy-in to the solutions, and overall increased engagement. Open conversations between different departments produce more realistic expectations and highlight obstacles in the planning process, leading to better solutions. What could be wrong with that?

Apparently, more than you think! Benham Tabrizi, writing in Harvard Business Review, describes the results of detailed research on 95 cross-functional teams in 25 leading corporations. Teams were rated on their success or failure on five dimensions: 1.) meeting a planned budget; 2.) staying on schedule; 3.) adhering to specifications; 4.) meeting customer expectations, and 5.) maintaining alignment with the company’s corporate goals. In that study, nearly 75% of cross-functional teams fail on at least three of these dimensions.

While cross-functional teams sound like a panacea for a myriad of corporate challenges, many of them are sabotaged because their organization is not prepared to manage and support them in achieving the team’s purpose. According to Tabrizi, “cross-functional teams often fail because the organization lacks a systemic approach. Teams are hurt by unclear governance, by a lack of accountability, by goals that lack specificity, and by organizations’ failure to prioritize the success of cross-functional projects.”

Cross-functional teams are still a great solution for corporate challenges that require an inter-disciplinary approach. But your people have been working in silos for a long time, and cross-functional teams are new. Here are five tips for ensuring the success of cross-functional teams in your organization:

  1. Who’s in charge? Every cross-functional project should have ONE leader who is responsible and accountable for the team’s success. There must be one executive who can defuse obstacles, cut through bureaucratic red-tape, and find the right talent and necessary resources for the team to succeed. Many use a structure where a large team is led by a smaller team of managers, with one of those managers reporting to the executive. Companies who successfully implement cross-functional teams often use this as an opportunity to expose high-potential managers to executives with whom they might otherwise not interact.
  2. Establish goals, resources, and deadlines. Per Tabrizi,Before the beginning of any project, there should be an approved budget, and a charter defining priorities, desired outcomes, and timeframes.”
  3. Align functional goals with overall project success. Different functions within your organization may approach working on a cross-functional team as an opportunity to get a benefit for their functional areas. The executive must make it clear that the personal evaluation and compensation of every team member will be the success of the team and not success at the functional level.
  4. Constantly re-challenged. Cross-functional teams must constantly be challenged to identify what’s working – and what does not align with the overall goals of the business. The executive must be ready at any time to stop work on any individual effort – or the entire project.
  5. Ensure competence. Make sure that the people on the team all have a contribution to make to the overall success of the project. Put the right people on the team, but don’t neglect the opportunity to train and develop team-members to increase their ability to contribute. Cross-functional teams can and should be a valuable tool for professional development.

Cross-functional teams are increasingly popular because they allow corporations to achieve their most challenging goals: innovation, improved operations, and cost efficiencies. Silos can be stubborn, and working in cross-functional teams is a new and different challenge for many employees. By carefully implementing cross-functional teams, and being alert to and managing carefully the organizational forces that tear teams apart, corporations can make the most of the efforts of every member of your cross-functional teams.

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