16 Best Practices for Developing and Managing Cross-Functional Teams
Leading companies know that strong cross-functional teams are central to building innovative solutions at a fast pace.
As anyone that has had to lead a cross-functional team before will tell you, the biggest challenge to fully realizing your company’s goals is managing these teams well.
Managed incorrectly, though, these teams become a muddle of poor communication, pushed-back deadlines, and deliverables that don’t delight customers. It happens more often than you think. A study from Harvard Business Review shows that most cross-functional teams are dysfunctional—75% of them, to be exact.
What’s the secret to being the one in four that gets it right? In this article, we’ll review what cross-functional teams are, common causes of dysfunction, and best practices for team development.
We propose specific management techniques to implement immediately, so you can get back to making awesome things with happy employees.
What is a Cross-Functional Team?
Cross-functional teams bring together top talent with different skill sets across multiple departments to develop, build, and market products that can launch a company far past the competition.
For example, the development and launch of a new software will definitely involve developers but might also involve design, research, sales, marketing, and legal teams, among others.
Sometimes, cross-functional teams happen organically, especially in small orgs where employees tend to wear many hats. For example, at a startup with a marketing department of one person, it’s probably essential that they collaborate daily with people on the product and sales teams.
We argue for being deliberate about bringing people together from various departments to make your org successful. But even if cross-functional teams form organically out of necessity, they need a different set of management tactics than what you would use for a department of people with the same skill set.
Why Cross-Functional Teams Are Important
Cross-functional teams benefit a lot of companies and employees. Below are some of the top reasons other businesses have cited the importance of building and managing a company composed of interdepartmental teams.
Enhanced Creativity For Better Problem-Solving
When you bring diversity into a group, the potential for them to creatively solve problems is higher than non-diverse teams. In this sense, diversity includes life experiences, skills, and backgrounds that might be fostered by other forms of diversity such as race, companies worked for, sexual orientation, size of companies, and so much more.
Speed Up Work While Maintaining Quality
Cross-functional teams allow for projects and daily work to be accomplished at a faster pace due to the range of skills that the team has access to. Teammates can either unblock each other by doing the work necessary to keep the ball rolling, or they can teach each other new skills.
Keeps Employees Focused on Company-wide Goals
When employees are a part of a cross-functional team, they’re exposed to their teammates’ departments and the goals of those team members. By providing a broad array of perspectives, employees naturally develop an understanding and are better able to focus on company-wide goals.
Challenges For Cross-Functional Teams That Require Strong Management Skills
The first step to developing a successful cross-functional team is understanding their weak spots. This pyramid of dysfunctional team characteristics, which comes from The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, offers an overview of challenges teams might face without proper guidance:
Here’s what these challenges mean for cross-functional teams:
Absence of Trust
Employees who belong to different departments may have had little—if any—prior contact before the project began. They may not fully understand the functions of their teammates, and they likely have few or no prior successes together that can create a foundation of trust and camaraderie.
Fear of Conflict
Innovation can’t exist when there’s no foundation of familiarity between teammates and a poorly-designed or nonexistent decision-making process. Team members need a safe environment to debate ideas, have some degree of decision-making autonomy, and claim ownership over the final product.
Lack of Commitment
Members of cross-functional teams may unconsciously prioritize their usual department tasks over project tasks, which can contribute to feeling a lack of ownership or responsibility toward the team.
Avoidance of Accountability
Team members that don’t openly communicate and collaborate are more likely to be competitive, look out for their own performance, and pass the blame off to someone else. This creates an environment of low standards.
Inattention to Results
If team members haven’t been guided toward valuing the bigger picture, they may become overly focused on completing tasks within their scope of influence at the expense of the final product.
We know you want your cross-functional teams to soar! And it’s important to remember that they don’t struggle because employees set out to be terrible teammates, but because people with different skill sets and points of view need different strategies and supports to succeed together. There’s a lot you can do to develop healthy and happy cross-functional teams.
Best Practices for Developing and Managing Efficient Cross-Functional Teams
The following are generalized practices that can help you build a successful cross-functional team:
1) Bring in the right team members
Think critically about who you bring in. It’s tempting to want to nab the people with the strongest skills from each department, but actually—it’s more important to have a cohesive team rather than individual rockstars.
2) Have a kick-off meeting
You’ve assembled your A-team. Now, it’s time to make sure you don’t have people butting heads or putting individual goals above team goals. So, have a kick-off meeting to establish goals and internalize a shared purpose. During the meeting, discuss and put in writing:
- The purpose of the project, i.e. the common goal of the team
- Who the core team members are and what their functions are
- Why this project is valuable for all the departments involved
- A team charter, such as the one pictured below from The Ready, an org design firm
Allow team members to contribute ideas about what goes within the team charter. This helps everyone internalize project goals and team culture. A visual charter is also something that people can refer back to after the kick-off meeting is done and dusted.
3) Develop a plan and timeline for the project
Leaders should come equipped with a plan of action for the entire project. This might mean that the manager of a cross-functional team already knows the due date and has a general understanding of the overall plan and timeline.
More experienced leaders may feel comfortable facilitating this discussion with the team and allowing them to create the overall project plan and the exact timeline for deliverable dates. Be sure that you establish clear guidelines for this type of discussion so that employees understand the importance of completing a project efficiently.
4) Build a team identity
Members should feel at home within a cross-functional team, much in the same way that they feel comfortable within their department.
This feeling facilities buy-in, effective communication, and decision-making. A good way to do this is to host a project kick-off and social event where team members can meet each other and build trust and connections before the real work starts
As a team, establish values and goals before the work even starts. For example, if a software decision comes down to a choice between a financial consideration and the user experience, the team should already have decided which is more important (For what it’s worth, we’d pick a better user experience every time).
Scoping out values and goals decreases decision-making times and keeps the product aligned with company objectives.
5) Assign responsibilities and a leadership hierarchy
Leadership in cross-functional teams can be challenging as staff might be accustomed to their management roles within their own departments. Company leaders should establish the hierarchies and important roles for cross-functional teams at the very start of a project.
Giving teams clear leadership is like establishing clear goals. It will likely require discussion to assign the correct managers, but the added understanding will help establish how and when to communicate with their teammates.
6) Encourage regular communication
Ideally, team members should communicate amongst themselves as much as they communicate with the project manager. Everyone should be informed of the project status and what their responsibility is in that moment. Meetings should also happen regularly and be seen as a valuable use of everyone’s time.
We highly recommend Slack for smooth and open communication between team members.
7) Arrange opportunities to mingle or co-work
The familiarity between team members is key for easier communication and collaboration. Give members plenty of opportunities for face-to-face interactions, whether it’s through after-work socializing or co-working in a shared space.
If some team members work remotely, use a video conferencing tool like GoToMeeting during team meetings instead of putting them on speakerphone. Seeing someone’s body language or facial expressions not only facilitates clearer communication, but can also help team members feel like they know each other better. Not only that, but some research has shown that non-verbal communication can contribute to overall team productivity.
8) Schedule check-in meetings with clear agendas
Meetings are necessary for team members to come together and discuss the status of a project. However, sometimes those meetings get cobbled together at the last minute and can leave attendees wondering what the point was.
Think about the last time you came away from a meeting thinking that it was a highly productive use of your time. To have more like that, schedule meetings at regular intervals from the outset of the project, then follow a clear agenda each time. The agenda for your meetings could include:
- Project updates
- Team member check-ins and concerns
- Reevaluation of even/overstatements or the decision-making process as needed
- Setting next steps
To get even more serious, ask one person to be the “time-checker” and alot a certain amount of time in the agenda for each item. Rather than having an ad hoc meeting when a crisis arises, regular meetings with consistent agendas will keep a project on track.
9) Encourage transparent communication between team members
The innovation you seek from a cross-functional team can only happen through consistent communication and collaboration. If people are on a project together but are still communicating in silos, it’s not working. Encourage people to reach out to each other rather than to the project manager or team leader when they have a concern.
It would also be great if cross-functional teams have an employee directory to refer to so that they can access each other’s contact information at the push of a button.
10) Establish shared goals for cross-functional teams
Management of cross-functional teams can be significantly easier for both leaders and team members if everyone on the team understands what the exact goals are for the project. For this reason, shared goals should be established at the very start of the project.
Not communicating these goals could inadvertently leave employees feeling disengaged, or might inadvertently cause them to prioritize their individual goals.
11) Have the right communication tools in place
Leading cross-functional teams means giving your team the right tools to efficiently and effectively communicate. In today’s world, there is no shortage of available communication tools for team members to access one another whether they are in-office or remote teammates. Here are some recommended tools:
- Slack – For quick communication, slack is a great way to organize conversations amongst team members. Cross-functional teams can build a project channel that allows all project-focused work to be exchanged, including questions, status updates, and link sharing.
- Zoom – Whether doing voice calls or video chat to connect, Zoom will give entire teams a simple, affordable way to connect. It easily integrates within calendars such as Google Calendar to make sure teammates never miss an important meeting.
- Pingboard – Pingboard takes employee and team connection seriously by giving teams unique software solutions that enhance connection. From an overall understanding of teams in a company via organizational charts or employee directories to better 1:1 meeting facilitation and individual status updates, Pingboard is a must-have for cross-functional team collaboration.
- Asana – Asana gives teams meaningful workflow visualizations. You can establish tasks, subtasks, due dates that can be viewed in multiple formats, and comment on every aspect of a project to keep questions and project updates all in one platform.
Google Workspace – Google workspace is an additional powerful suite of tools that makes sharing docs, sheets, and presentations easy and is free or very affordable depending on the amount of storage your team requires. Hold conversations inside shared docs, and allow all members of a cross-functional team to make direct edits to each others’ work.
12) Demystify the decision-making process
Who has the final say? When it comes time to make a decision, a team member should know whether she has the authority or expertise to decide on her own. If not, she should know exactly who to go to or what the process is for making the decision.
The decision-making process should also be sensible and not unduly burdensome. A project manager might want to have the final say, but unless something is truly a toss-up, it’s better if the project manager supports and facilitates decision-making and relies on the individual’s and teams’ collective expertise. In the end, it’s better for accountability and team buy-in.
13) Create decision-making processes together
As a team, discuss and determine what the decision-making process is for this project. What decisions can individuals make on their own? If not them, who has the authority to make the final call?
Team members should jot down their ideas for different scenarios, then confer and decide on appropriate responses as a group. Below is an example of a completed decision-making process:
Once you’ve defined the decision-making process, create a chart like the one pictured that team members can print out and display in their workspace. They’ll always remember what decisions are their responsibility, which reinforces a feeling of ownership over the project.
Vote on even/overstatements
Even/overstatements make clear what is a greater commitment within a project. For instance, marketing may always be just as important as user experience, but settling on a statement like “user experience even over marketing” will keep team members on track during a key moment of decision-making.
As a team, decide on some even/overstatements during the kick-off meeting.
Members can vote on what they feel is more critical within the context of the project, and the facilitator can make sure they align with business and user experience goals. Then, add these even/overstatements to the team charter for later reference. The team can reevaluate them at a later meeting if needed.
14) Get manager buy-in
Each team member likely has their own goals within their department, which are bound to conflict with the needs of the cross-functional project. One way to make the balancing act easier is to get managers invested in the success of the project.
As the project manager or team leader, you might find that you already have the techniques to make these practices happen. If you need more specific examples, the next section will offer tools and tricks you can use.
15) Involve department heads in tasks
Getting that crucial department head buy-in is easier if they are personally involved in some aspects of the project. A VP of Sales is much more likely to make sure her employee is staying on top of team tasks if she’s also involved in the team in some way.
One way to do that is to invite VPs or managers to a monthly progress meeting so they can see what their employees are up to outside of their department. You could also use that opportunity to ask for their insights or suggestions about the project. There might also be instances where it’s appropriate to include them in aspects of the decision-making process that are relevant to their department.
16) Always re-evaluate processes and make necessary changes promptly
Leading a great cross-functional team means helping them reevaluate processes continuously. Empower teammates to note hiccups or inefficiencies in any systems or tools that you’re using and be sure to acknowledge and praise their feedback.
The most important part of reevaluating any process is making sure that changes are made as quickly as possible to ensure your teammates know that their feedback is taken seriously and to make improvements tangible.
Manage A Happier, More Innovative Cross-Functional Team With Pingboard
The structure of your cross-functional team alone is not enough to ensure innovation or keep a project running smoothly. Project leaders need to cultivate communication, collaboration, and effective decision-making among team members. The right tools and techniques applied consistently make it possible.
Try Pingboard’s 14-Day Free Trial and get access to our Org Chart Software, Employee Directory, 1:1 Meeting solution, and Peer Recognition Software.
Pingboard helps managers build cross functional teams by allowing them to search for the skills, roles, or specific people they want on a team. Pingboard promotes cross team collaboration by giving members a place to connect, collaborate and celebrate each other’s hard work. Here is a look into where teammates can connect with each other, and leaders can build out teams.
From this page team members can give peer-to-peer recognition, easily find contact info, and quickly see team members’ out of office schedules. Here’s an example of Pingboard’s org chart software where cross functional team managers can search and select the perfect team.
Build successful cross-functional teams today with Pingboard. If you need help adding your employee data we’re always here.
I am the Director of Growth at Pingboard. I consider myself an entrepreneur at heart. I love trying new things and taking educated risks on new ventures, both professionally and in my personal life. I bring that passion to work everyday where I enjoy helping others discover the power that Pingboard can unlock.