This post was originally published on August 16, 2019, and updated most recently on April 16, 2021.
Cross-functional teams are a dream on paper: a collection of people with different skill sets from across an organization working together toward a shared goal. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing, there are no silos or duplicate efforts, and each team member has a deep appreciation for what their colleagues do. What’s not to like?
Unfortunately, quite a lot. According to one study by The Harvard Business Review, nearly 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional and “…fail on at least three of five criteria:
- meeting a planned budget
- staying on schedule
- adhering to specifications
- meeting customer expectations
- maintaining alignment with the company’s corporate goals.”
A three-quarters failure rate is staggeringly high. But just because many cross-functional teams flop doesn’t mean the concept should be abandoned entirely. In fact, there’s still a lot to love about this utopian way of working. And technology is making it all the more achievable.
What is a cross-functional team?
It’s a team of people with varied skillsets from different areas of the business working toward a common goal. It includes a mixture of people from different teams like marketing, HR, operations, and finance. And it includes members of various levels such as managers, mid-level employees, and juniors.
This type of team is commonly found in small businesses or startups because these organizations have fewer employees, which often calls for team members to take on tasks outside their normal purview. When they’re used in larger businesses, it’s usually to encourage more innovative ways of thinking.
What are the benefits?
Cross-functional teams are usually small, adaptable, and flexible. Because they have all the necessary skills to deliver quickly, they’re often seen in Agile environments. They also foster employee engagement because people from every level of the organization are working together. This lessens the gulf between ‘us’ and ‘them’ that often occurs between upper management and mid to junior-level employees.
Another benefit is improved innovation. People with varied skillsets often look at a problem in different ways. Including different disciplines on your team can often lead to increased creativity due to exposure to new ways of thinking.
5 tips for a successful cross-functional team
Cross-functional teams can be a great way to improve innovation, flexibility, and teamwork. Here’s how to make it work for you.
1. Define your goals
It’s important to define goals so team members don’t waste time on tasks that lead nowhere. Approach this task the same was you would any other project. Begin with a project proposal, then create a charter that clearly sets out the boundaries (or scope) of your project. Next, define your deliverables so everyone, both within the team and outside it, has a clear understanding of what to expect and when.
Clearly articulating these elements will give your team a better sense of direction and accountability.
2. Pick a leader
While it’s true that cross-functional teams sometimes function without a leader, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one. It’s always a good idea to have someone who can take accountability and provide guidance.
The leader will assign and define responsibilities, so whoever you pick needs to understand both the broader business goal and the different skillsets and dynamics within the team.
Because cross-functional teams often involve people working autonomously, it’s all the more important for the leader to foster an environment of collaboration and make sure everyone is working toward the wider goal and not just focusing on their own individual tasks.
The leader should also do the usual things you’d expect someone in that role to do: support each team member, develop their skills, delegate work, resolve conflicts, collaborate with others, and track progress. So picking someone with at least a little managerial responsibility is a must.
3. Assemble your team
Obviously, if you’re working in a small business or startup, you may have fewer options for your team. But if you have the luxury of picking your team from a wide talent pool, then think carefully about who you choose. It’s as much about the personalities as it is the expertise. You’ll want proactive employees who can work well independently and follow tasks through to the end.
To remain productive, cross-functional teams should continually reevaluate priorities so that when the market changes or their goals shift, they can remain focused. There are two ways to do this:
- Hold regular project post mortems to evaluate whether or not you achieved your goals and, if not, why.
- Hold performance reviews so each individual team member has a good idea of their own progress and can make adjustments if necessary.
Good organizational communication is the driving force behind every successful project. And when you’re working as part of a cross-functional team, this becomes all the more important because team members are often not working in the same room, building, or even continent.
Aside from emails and phones, there are a few tools you can use to help boost collaboration and communication.
- Find a chat app your team can use to communicate in real-time. Ideally, it should be something with a simple interface people can adopt quickly. It should also have features that help employees focus, such as ‘busy’ statuses, adjustable notification settings, and streamlined chat topics, as well as emojis and gifs to help your team members show their personality and have fun while talking to each other.
- Invest in project management software. As previously mentioned, staying focused on the wider goal is key to cross-functional team success. Project management software is the gold standard here because it tracks data in real-time and allows everyone to check in and monitor overall progress whenever and wherever they are. Team members can also receive automatic notifications (which means fewer emails flying around and less chance of important information slipping through the net) and share documents and other important project-related information on the cloud, where everyone can access it whenever they need to.
While we’ve already touched on this a few times throughout this explanation, we’d like to reiterate how important it is to give your team members the trust and authority to make the right decisions. The second the leader starts to take on too much authority or an oversight layer is added to the team, the cross-functional team starts to fall apart.
The team will start relying on that group to make decisions or final calls. They might start to feel undermined by a group of people given unlimited oversight. Processes will start taking more and more time as more steps and check-ins are added to the project. The leadership should be providing just enough direction to keep the team on the right path without taking on full authority.
Cross-functional teams can be very productive when they have a clear set of goals, a strong leader at the helm, and tools to help collaboration. Given these essential ingredients, they have the potential to be among the most collaborative, productive, and creative ways of working.