Leading companies know that strong cross-functional teams are central to building innovative solutions at a fast pace. At their best, cross-functional teams bring together top talent with different skill sets to develop, build, and market products that can launch a company far past the competition.
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.
A cross-functional team is a group of people with different skill sets brought together by a shared goal. They often form in response to a project requiring the expertise of different departments.
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.
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 characteristics 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.
The following are generalized practices that can help you build a successful cross-functional team:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You know what the best practices are, but how do you implement them? We have some ideas to cultivate your cross-functional dream team:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Pingboard is an org chart maker that can help. Create cross-functional team charts, then use custom fields to add info about members’ roles on a specific project. Team members can refer to it throughout the project and have easy access to their teammates’ contact info so everyone stays connected and collaborative.