How to Effectively Manage a Cross-Functional Team

So, your company has decided to launch a cross-functional team. You’re not alone. Many organizations are choosing to shift from hierarchical to team-oriented structures in order to better meet the needs of an evolving competitive market. Although this shift combats the silo mentality and has the potential for substantial payoff, businesses can only reap these benefits if their cross-functional teams work seamlessly to achieve success.

According to a 2016 Harvard Business Review Study, 75 percent of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional. This dysfunction prevents them from living up to their potential and weighs down organizations instead of offering them a competitive edge. There are a number of issues that contribute to dysfunction, but most are rooted in one cause: poor management. Cross-functional teams need strong leaders who can navigate the unique challenges and situations this environment presents.

One of the challenges of a cross-functional team is members may not feel as strongly committed to the team as to their department because they have fewer common interests with their coworkers. Managers play a key role in combating this animosity by uniting group members around common goals. It’s vital for managers to set these goals early on so the team always has something to work towards. The Institute for Supply Management also suggests migrating away from the “star system” which rewards individuals who stand out and instead offer rewards to those who help the team as a whole to thrive. This means rewarding those who pitch in on extra tasks, share their expertise, facilitate discussions or challenge the team to do better.

Another challenge of cross-functional teams is potential friction between group members with different backgrounds. These teams are often made up of individuals with different interests, talents, work styles, ages and sometimes in global companies or coworking spaces, cultural norms. Diversity training can help team members better navigate these complex group dynamics.  This training can also prevent conflicts, improve interpersonal relationships and increase trust.

The Institute for Supply Management suggests exploring different team player styles, developing team standards, practicing conflict resolution techniques and completing exercises centered on consensus decisions during this training. Social events, such as afterworks or outings, can boost team bonding and spark friendships outside of the office, thus improving group dynamics.

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Managers of cross-functional teams may also run into problems with communication. Consistent communication is key to staying on schedule, identifying and solving problems and producing the highest quality work. It’s important to keep all team members up-to-date on both the group’s and individual’s progress. New online tools, such as Slack or Google Docs, are helpful in collaborating and sharing the latest updates, but managers should be careful not to let technology replace face-to-face communication.

Spending time talking with colleagues in person will help you gauge their feelings, body language and motivations, insights you can’t obtain from a computer screen. Pragmatic Marketing suggests assigning responsibility to team members to communicate with their departments as well. Other departments can be useful resources for cross-functional teams and provide invaluable feedback on projects. This will also provide departments with a point person to go to when they have questions or need assistance instead of leaving team managers to field all inquiries.

Effective communication is an easy way to combat issues of accountability in a cross-functional team. Managers must clarify each member’s responsibilities to hold everyone accountable from day one and continue to meet for regular updates. This clarification can uncover gaps in knowledge or potential issues with achieving these goals so managers can re-assign tasks accordingly.

Managers will need a special skillset to effectively lead a cross-functional team through an array of unique challenges. For me, it’s important to be open to learning something new every day, because you can learn a lot from working with a diverse group of people. According to the Institute of Supply Management, managers should have a working knowledge of technical issues addressed in the project, experience facilitating group discussions, solving conflicts and building consensuses. Managers should also be organized and able to establish goals as well as keep team members on track. It’s also important for managers to be flexible and willing to adapt or adjust as necessary.

I also suggest uncovering the personal motivations of your team members, such as why they chose the field they did. This can help you understand what will make them happier at work and what will inspire them to do their best.

Cross-functional teams can be highly effective when run well, offering ample benefits to businesses. One of the most prominent benefits is a surge of creativity. Bringing people together with a wide range of talents and experiences leads to the blending of viewpoints, sparking new ideas that can more easily become reality with a diverse skillset. For example, I’ve seen illustrators work closely with engineers to develop video solutions for businesses, integrating high tech programming with polished artistic design.

Cross-functional teams also can take on more complex projects with greater speed, decreasing the amount of time it takes to complete a task. These teams can also promote skill set development as team members learn more about each other’s specialties and work with people who have diverse backgrounds and work styles.

This team-oriented structure is ideal for creative tasks or service or project development. I still prefer hierarchical structures for projects which demand more efficient decision making or which deal with client relations. But there are clear benefits to having a cross-functional team within a company. When executed well, with strong leadership paving the way, cross-functional teams can take an organization’s success to the next level.

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Image via BCNewt