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10+ Best Practices & Strategies for Cross-Functional Team Management

10+ Best Practices & Strategies for Cross-Functional Team Management

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.

What is a Cross-Functional Team?

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.

Cross-Functional Team Diagram

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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.

What Challenges Do Cross-Functional Teams Face?

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:

Pyramid of Dysfunctional Team Characteristics

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Here’s what these characteristics mean for cross-functional teams:

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 Efficient Cross-Functional Teams

The following are generalized practices that can help you build a successful cross-functional team:

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.

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.

Communication in Project Management

We highly recommend Slack for smooth and open communication between team members.

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. 

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.

Managing a Cross-Functional Team Day to Day

You know what the best practices are, but how do you implement them? We have some ideas to cultivate your cross-functional dream team:

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.

How to Manage a Cross-Functional Team

Use Pingboard to create an org chart of the different members on your cross-functional team. Organize teams by products, projects, customer segments, and more!

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:

Team Charter Template

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. 

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.

Draft 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:

Decision-Making Processes

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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.

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.

Arrange opportunities to mingle or co-work

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

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:

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.

Encourage clear 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. 

cross-functional teams have an employee directory

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.

Be Part of a Happier and More Innovative Cross-Functional Team

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.