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Traditional organizational configurations often consisted of a hierarchical structure, with a top-down approach to management and each department tackling a specific area. While this approach has its benefits, it can also result in unanticipated inefficiencies and a silo approach to business.
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The antidote? Cross functional teams within the organization. While most departments are organized by expertise and purpose, cross functional teams are groups of people with different viewpoints and expertise who collaborate to achieve a common objective.
What Is a Cross-Functional Team?
Cross functional teams are groups of people from various departments in an organization—such as marketing, product development, quality assurance, sales and finance—who work together to achieve a common goal. Oftentimes, cross functional teams are organized to complete a specific project, but they can also be created with a more ongoing purpose.
Benefits of a Cross-Functional Team
Cross functional teams break through the “silos” of a traditional organizational structure so that the team can see the big picture. By working with members who have varying viewpoints, expertise and backgrounds, the collective team can more efficiently tackle problems and achieve the goals of a project. They can also anticipate hurdles earlier in the process because each department has input throughout the process, rather than a project moving from department to department.
Cross-Functional Teams Promote the Goals of the Organization
When departments operate primarily within their specific verticals, they often focus on their own goals without seeing the big picture. For instance, the sales team may be concerned about securing new customers but they lose sight of the personnel issues involved with an overwhelmed crew. The finance team might be so focused on the bottom line that they are hesitant to take on the risks of launching a new product line. And the marketing team might be so eager to launch a new brand or product that they aren’t focused on product development challenges.
By putting together people with seemingly competing day-to-day goals, you can ensure that the goals of the organization are advanced throughout the entire project.
Cross-Functional Teams Increase Efficiency
Instead of a project moving through one department before being passed off to the next, cross functional teams increase the efficiency of project completion. Because you are working with personnel from other departments, the team can address potential challenges before moving too far along in the process.
For instance, if the product development department creates an innovative new product, only to find out that the sales department has concerns about actually selling the product, there will be wasted time in the project. On the other hand, if the sales department works alongside product development in a cross functional team, the potential challenges can be addressed earlier on to minimize lost time and sunk costs.
Cross-Functional Teams Can Increase Innovation
Departments often become so focused on sharpening their own skills and achieving their specific goals that they lose sight of the big picture. Siloed departments can get stuck in a rut. But by combining different viewpoints and knowledge, cross functional teams can increase innovation of both processes and products. They can find holistic solutions to meet the needs of the organization because they can see the perspectives of other functionalities.
Downsides of a Cross-Functional Team
There are a few cons to cross functional teams. For instance, some experts warn that they can limit the professional growth of individual members because they are focused on achieving the goals of a specific project. To prevent this, some organizations institute limited terms for group members, with members from the various departments rotating into and out of the team to prevent stagnation.
Another risk is that if a project is too broad or poorly defined, cross functional teams can flounder aimlessly. And if the organization doesn’t create effective compensation systems, team members can become disgruntled. These potential downsides can be minimized with careful planning, however, such as instituting an agile project management framework.
How To Create an Effective Cross-Functional Team
Ensure Diversity Within the Team
Diversity is a cornerstone of cross functional teams, but this isn’t confined to diversity of expertise. The more diverse the group is, the more effective and productive it will be at meeting its goals. This means diversity of age, status, background, viewpoint, gender, race and tenure with the organization.
It is important that the team includes members of various departments who are influencers not only within their own respective departments but also within the organization as a whole. At some point, the cross functional team needs the buy-in of the organization and its various departments, so it is important to include people who can effectively communicate the hows and whys of the team’s work to others in the organization.
Set Clear Goals for the Cross-Functional Team
As mentioned above, if the project is too broad or lacks clear goals, the team may falter. But if you establish clear goals with specific deadlines or milestones, you can increase the likelihood that the team will meet the project’s objectives. Using project management tools can also help keep the team on task and communicate progress.
Reinforce the Team’s Authority and Discourage Hierarchies
In order for the team to be productive and efficient, the members need to be respected within the organization. It is important to establish their authority regarding the project and to reinforce their goals throughout the duration of the work.
Similarly, organizational leadership also needs to discourage a hierarchical approach within the group. Because diversity is a key feature of a cross functional team, members who have less experience than other members need to feel safe to share their viewpoints.
Encourage positive and healthy conflict resolution.
Conflict situations can arise in any situation, but cross functional teams may be more susceptible to conflicts because of the diversity of viewpoints, experience and expertise. Leadership can help to minimize the negative impact of conflicts by arranging conflict resolution training for all team members and making sure that they have opportunities to connect on a personal level. This can be done by increasing the proximity of team members in the workplace, through team-building exercises and by fostering productive communication.
Your organization may already be using cross functional teams without realizing it. Take a look at the way your organization’s departments work with each other. If there are informal cross functional teams popping up organically, you may want to be more intentional about your approach to these groups. And if you aren’t utilizing cross functional teams in your organization, now is a good time to consider implementing them.
Frequently Asked Questions
When an organization should create a cross-functional team?
Cross functional teams can be created anytime, but they often work best—especially when new—if they have specific and clear directives. Accordingly, an organization should consider creating a cross functional team to address a specific and timely project.
Who should assemble the cross-functional team?
An organization’s leadership should assemble the members of the cross functional team, with input from HR on potential personnel issues. When creating the team, consider the expertise, experience level and communication styles of the candidates.