Modern organizations rarely achieve excellence when their teams work in isolation. Now more than ever, collaborative technologies are enabling a new era of collaborative work whereby workplace silos are being destroyed and teams are working together via cross-functional teams to achieve organizational goals more efficiently and effectively than ever before.
The proliferation of cross-functional teams, however, has brought with it a whole new set of challenges not only for team members but also managers who are responsible for seeing these teams flourish and realize their full potential.
What is a Cross-Functional Team?
A cross-functional team is a group of employees with different types of skills and experiences who come from different teams across the organization and work together to achieve a common goal. Cross-functional teams always have clear goals and a common vision, and they benefit the organization by working together to pursue an organization’s objectives effectively.
More often than not, a cross-functional team will also include employees with varying levels of experience. With a cross-functional team, the lines between functional areas of a company are blurred as team members from different departments collaborate, communicate, and coordinate with each other.
What is the Difference Between Functional and Cross-Functional Teams?
A functional team is one that consists of individuals from a particular area of expertise or who hold a particular skill set. In contrast, a cross-functional team is made up of people with skills and experiences that transcend different areas. Furthermore, a functional team will generally be focused on their own goals whereas a cross-functional team’s focus is much more varied and extends to larger organizational goals.
Cross-functional teams are becoming particularly important because of the unique and effective results they can deliver. This is because unlike functional teams, which naturally fall into the “right” way of doing things, a cross-functional team disrupts the status quo and can introduce new ideas and processes, thereby creating better results all around.
7 Tips for Managing a Cross-Functional Team
Although the utilization of cross-functional teams can bring many benefits to organizations, they can also lead to the emergence of many challenges.
Conflict, inefficiencies, bias, miscommunications, and competing priorities can make it difficult for leaders to effectively manage their teams. But by implementing the right tips and techniques, many of these issues can be overcome.
1. Have Clear Goals
Since cross-functional teams are drawn from different teams and departments within an organization, individuals often have different goals, and these can sometimes be conflicting. Without clear alignment to a common goal or objective, a cross-functional team might find it difficult to collaborate effectively.
Managers can overcome this by setting clear project goals from the outset. Determine the objective that you’re trying to achieve through cross-functional collaboration and tie that to the actual deliverables that are needed to achieve it. That way, all team members will be on the same page and a fruitful, cohesive collaboration becomes much more likely.
2. Develop a Project Plan and Timeline
Once you’ve set goals for the project then it’s time to plan out how they’re going to be achieved and, ideally, set a timeline for when they need to be achieved. After all, even the best plans can be frustrated when team members don’t know when things need to be done or where they’re going.
There are many ways you can do this. Many project managers like to use the Kanban board, which allows team members to visualize their workflow, priorities, and deadlines via a series of movable cards and goal-specific columns.
3. Encourage Team Identity
Although employees on cross-functional teams may come from different parts of the business, they should feel comfortable when working as part of this team much in the same way as they do when they work within their own department. Facilitating a sense of team identity and belonging helps to encourage buy-in, effective communication, and cohesion.
A good way to establish cross-functional team identity is to host an initial project kick-off or social event where team members can meet one another and establish connections before their work starts.
4. Be Ready for Conflict
Conflict is unfortunately part and parcel of the workplace. This can become more problematic in cross-functional teams when individuals who have grown used to siloed working are suddenly tasked with collaborating with one another for the greater good.
Conflict can be particularly rampant where members from traditionally conflicting teams (i.e., sales vs marketing) are made to work together. Conflict may also arise as individuals fight for power or over limited resources. As a project manager, it’s important that you’re prepared to address and remedy this conflict to ensure that everything stays on track.
5. Encourage Regular Communication
Cross-functional team members should communicate amongst themselves regularly. This is crucial for ensuring that everybody involved is informed of the project’s status and what their responsibility is at a given moment. Meetings should also take place regularly so long as there is something valuable to communicate.
When team members are used to working with different people or independently, however, encouraging communication can be difficult. Tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams and meeting technology tools like Zoom can help establish open lines of communication across cross-functional team members and encourage them to talk to one another.
6. Implement Roles, Responsibilities, and Team Hierarchy
Managing a cross-functional team can be challenging because employees are generally accustomed to reporting to other managers within their own teams and departments. As such, leaders should be ready to establish roles, responsibilities, and hierarchies that apply to the cross-functional team’s objectives and projects from the very start.
Giving teams a clear structure and leadership is just like establishing clear goals. It will take some time and thought in the beginning to ensure that the right people are being assigned the right roles and responsibilities, but the added understanding among team members will help to establish an understanding among employees about who’s responsible for what, and who to report to.
7. Make Decision-Making Authority Transparent
It’s important for cross-functional team members to know whether they have the authority and autonomy to make decisions on their own and if not, they should know exactly who has the final say or who is the final line of authority for a given decision or issue.
The decision-making process should also be sensible and not over the top. While a project manager might want to have the final say on all matters related to their project, it’s often better that some autonomy is delegated among team members who can consult the project manager where a consensus cannot be reached among them. After all, it’s the team members who collectively hold all the skills and experiences which the project manager relies on.
A great way to ensure that team members are kept in the know about who’s got the authority to do what is through an organizational chart. These can be used to map out reporting relationships and lines of authority for a particular project. Illustrating this via an organizational chart gives team members an unambiguous and clear point of reference for when they need to know who to approach when decisions need to be made.
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