The forth article in our effective teams in the workplace series looks at cross-functional teams; what they are, common problems faced and steps that can be taken to make them more effective in delivering personal development and growth for the individuals and the desired outputs and outcomes for the firm.


So what is a cross-functional teams?

A cross-functional team is one whose members are drawn from different business functions usually in some type of project, consultative or problem solving capacity. However, functional teams regularly have to collaborate cross-functionally on issues that go beyond their own departments.


Five obstacles to cross-functional team success

1. Unclear purpose: cross functional teams often fail because their purpose is not clearly understood and articulated. Members have different or blurred understanding of the exact reason why they have been formed. Sometimes team members’ leave to be replaced by others and the original purpose gets lost as time passes.

Troubleshooting tip: it is important in cross-functional teams to continually review the central purpose of why they exist. Ask the following questions:

  • is the original purpose still relevant;
  • does the time spent on the team represent a good investment in the members’ time away from the normal roles;
  • how valuable does the sponsor (if existing) consider the team output;
  • if the team didn’t exist, what significant business loss would there be; and
  • what value does the team add to the business (contribution to the business plan etc.)?

2. Not the day job: cross functional teams often suffer from the fact that their members have principal roles and teams in their own function which take primary precedence. Their commitment and thoughts are often tied up in activities in these principal roles rather than in those of the cross-functional teams and as such attendance, contribution, timescales, deliverables etc can suffer inadvertently. Whilst cross –functional collaboration should not take precedence over the day job, one key function not being represented at a critical meeting may affect the wider project and the business.

Troubleshooting tip: members’ commitment and contribution will often be determined both by the importance they attach to the purpose of the cross-functional team and the behaviours and attitudes of fellow members. It is essential therefore that:

  • the purpose is understood and agreed;
  • the sponsor and key senior managers commit to resourcing the project;
  • inappropriate behaviours are challenged before they become and acceptable part of the team dynamics; and
  • members who cannot attend delegate to a colleague who is empowered to represent and make decisions for their department.

3. Power and politics: cross-functional teams can fail because their members often come with their own agendas including protecting their turf and spend time undermining the efforts of others or engaged in political points scoring.

Troubleshooting tip: agree norms and standards of behaviour at the outset, which along with an agreed purpose statement should drive the activities of the team. Carry out a long-term health audit at regular intervals to determine progress against agreed standards of behaviour.

4. Roles and responsibilities, failure to agree what the key deliverables of the team are and who is responsible for what can lead to confusion in cross functional teams as they struggle over making sense of what is expected of them.

Troubleshooting tip: team members and manager/sponsor should write down or articulate their own roles and responsibilities. If these are vague or they struggle to do so then it is likely there is confusion over roles and responsibilities.  Be clear about each member’s accountability. Every member must have a contribution to make and be able to make decisions. They should also be the point of contact with and relay information to their department. Make sure that:

  • everyone knows why they are there;
  • everyone is clear on the actions they own at the end of each meeting;
  • actions are being delivered and slippages reviewed and/or escalated; and
  • there is an overall senior owner for the cross-functional project.

5. Process failures; failure to set up and agree processes for decision making, sharing information, running meetings etc is common to cross functional teams as they are often seen as temporary arrangements and thus common processes are ignored or only sketchily agreed. This is setting up the cross functional team to fail no matter how willing its team members are.

Troubleshooting tip: agree at the outset what key processes need to be set up and agreed (i.e. governance, measurement of progress, decision-making, communication of outputs etc.). Having a process type person on a team can often help to drive this forward particularly if some team members are turned off by the idea of spending time on processes. However putting time in up front can help eliminate later problems.

Effective cross-functional teams

There are a number of key behaviours that are critical in the functioning of and delivery from effective cross-function teams. These behaviours include:

  • thinking customer: respecting differences within the team and adding a personal touch to make a difference;
  • driving for success: being open to giving and helping others in the team;
  • making it happen: supporting decisions and communicating to those affected;
  • setting standards others aspire to: exploring better ways to do things and take in ideas from across the firm; and
  • winning as a team; agreeing joint goals to further each other’s legitimate business interests.


Creating successful cross-functional teams

Cross functional teams can often suffer from similar issues faced by alliance teams (see my article Effective Alliance Teams in the Workplace), in particular around different organisational or business unit cultures being brought into one working unit. However, team managers can undertake a number of different steps that can avoid or at least minimise the barriers to an effective cross-function team. These steps can include (if you would like a more extensive set of steps or tools a useful book to turn to is 40 Tools for Cross-functional Teams: Building Synergy for Breakthrough Creativity by Walter Michalski):

  • setting out clearly agreed purpose and vision statements that all members are committed to. Involvement in the formation of the statements should entail greater buy-in to their success;
  • agreeing to clear norms and standards of behaviour that respects other teams members and is clear in creating a unique culture for this team;
  • agreeing roles and responsibilities from problem definition to implementation;
  • creating an open and honest environment which encourages full participation and avoids local functional power plays and political point scoring;
  • setting up robust processes and in particular empowering the team so that it can achieve its objectives and goals. Glenn Parker in his book Cross Functional Teams: Working with Allies, Enemies and Other Strangers emphasises how critical this step is in enabling a team to succeed;
  • selecting multi-skill team members to perform a range of functions playing both to their strengths and building other strengths. The goal is to achieve a balance between volunteering and nominating in the allocation of actions;
  • agreeing to targets and objectives that will stretch team members with their managers and the team, and record commitment;
  • holding regular reviews to assess team effectiveness and progress;
  • make information accessible to all stakeholders and so demonstrating the value of contribution the team is making to the wider organisation; and
  • celebrating team and individual success.