Improving Cross-Functional Teamwork

Imagine a manager in your office commiserating with you over the last disastrous team meeting. He complains that the people from the departments that make up the team just don’t seem to get it. They fight with each other, protect their own departments and are distracted by a hundred side issues and personal problems. Frankly, he is getting disgusted with this teamwork idea, and would rather go back to the good old days.

This is not a new story nor one that fades away. Cross-functional teamwork is a real necessity these days, with your company’s competitors scrumming, outsourcing, nosourcing and biting at your heels.

Also read: Silos: The Insidious Poison that Stifles Organizations

Despite the need for it, vast confusion still exists about improving cooperation between departments. Improving cooperation inside a cross-functional team is different than improving cross-functional teamwork across the organization. Part one (“Good things to do”) talks about effective teamwork inside a cross-functional team. Part two talks about how to improve cross-functional teamwork across the organization.

Good things to do

To form an effective cross-functional team, evaluate the team’s project for:

Proper membership

Ask three questions when selecting team members: 1) do potential members have expertise in the problem the group must deal with?; 2) do they have political pull that can help the team fulfill their charter?; 3) can they all get along?

Expertise is a sticky issue: if all team members have substantial expertise in the problem area, they may not see the forest for the trees, yet a group of novices can make fundamental mistakes. Based on experience, the amount of expertise required for a group to be effective depends on the purpose of the group. If the purpose is to make incremental, small scale change, weight the group with experts. If the purpose is fundamental, large-scale change , weight the group with “less-than experts.”

8 Small But Powerful Ways To Recognize Employees

A clear charter and purpose

To me, the most frustrating experience is to be on a team without a clear direction or purpose. People meander and waffle around and after a few overly-long meetings, members stop showing up. Team members, their management and any other stakeholders should agree on the charter before the team starts on its task.

The right connections

Not only should members have some political pull themselves, but have access to bigger movers and shakers. These connections would especially include the higher ups from the functional departments the members represent.

Achievable, noticeable results

Well-established departments tend to have well-established measures of success, even though what is measured is of questionable use. Cross-functional teams, however, probably have to decide what results they expect to achieve. And what they want to achieve may have no current measure of success. A cross-functional team, for example, may want to reduce titanium waste, or improve the delivery time of information to customers. However, this information may not have been collected before and the team must develop the data from scratch.

Understood and agreed-upon groundrules

These groundrules include the norms for the group (how conflict and consensus is handled, who writes the minutes, who facilitates the group, etc.), and just as important, groundrules on 1) how much time, money, people other resources the department is willing to give to this project; 2) who the group can turn to when in trouble; and 3) if management doesn’t follow through, how the group will bang them on the head.

Intensive teambuilding up-front

So often I have seen teams come together with good purpose, but through misunderstandings come apart. Consultants are called in after the damage is done. Frankly its better to prevent a problem from happening than damage control. Up-front teambuilding sessions, where members’ concerns, problems and issues come out are a healthy way of preventing problems. These sessions can also deal with the issues described above. This teambuilding is especially important in cross-functional teams. Old department rivalries and current personality clashes can create bombshells with the simplest of issues.

Such teambuilding sessions have two parts. The first part concerns training the team in the tools they will use: problem solving, statistical process control, scrumming, etc. After an initial overview, this training is best delivered in a “just in time” fashion, where trainers teach the members the specific tool just before they use it. As an example, a team might receive an overview of problem solving as part of their initial teambuilding, but where they learn how to develop flowcharts just before they use them.

The second part of teambuilding involves some training in the usual set of group skills: meeting management, stages of group development, avoiding groupthink, the Abilene paradox, etc. For the most part, though, the second part involves facilitation around the specific issues (described above) that a particular team faces.

Also read: 5 Exciting Scenarios For Your Teambuilding Event

As you might guess, all this training/facilitation is best done when the entire cross-functional team is present in a room, all receiving the training/facilitation at the same time. Many companies do not realize this, and “mix and match” class room attendance, and train individuals from a variety of groups. This way may make the scheduling of training easier and more efficient, but it does not promote the spirit within a particular team. And isn’t that the point of teambuilding?

Looking at systems issues

Now let’s look at the very different situation of promoting cross-functional teamwork across the organization. Changes to support cross-functional teamwork do not involve individual teams, but the systems that support them. These systems include the organizational structure, performance appraisal/ hiring/promotion criteria and compensation systems.

How To Tell Your Employees You Are Moving Office

Organizational structure

Cross-functional teams work best when they work on a specific problem and the go away. However, some cross-functional problems are not so easily solved. In response to this, companies may change their organizational structure to work on these cross-functional problems. This may seem like a radical solution to some, but consider this: organizational structure is a major influence on communication flow. If everyone needs to cross organizational boundaries to get their work done, and much conflict results, organizational structure should be changed.

One way of doing this is to install matrix management. In this kind of structure, people drawn from a number of departments work on a particular project, similar to a quality improvement team. These projects don’t just focus on a problem, but on a more general process, such as a contract with a specific customer to do a specific job, with a project manager overseeing its performance. It sounds like a neat idea, but there is one problem. Who fills out the performance reviews of members on the team, their project manager who knows their work best, or their supervisor? The ambiguity of who reports to who can cause major uncertainty in team members with their ultimate loyalty to those who give them a raise.

Also read: 5 Questions Emotionally Intelligent Leaders Ask to Improve Employees’ Performance

Other companies blow up the functional stovepipes altogether. Usually as part of some redesign effort, they melt the functional stovepipes, and go to a more product- or customer- oriented structure. This may be done on a company-wide basis for those organizations with a small set of distinct products or services, or can be done at each location or plant the organization possesses.

Performance, appraisal, hiring and promotion criteria

How many organizations look at the breadth of experience in a variety of disciplines when hiring, evaluating or promoting a person? Not many. Instead they look for specific, specialized expertise, and promote accordingly. Many companies’ promotional ladders help this situation, with employees moving from an associate to a professional to an expert level in one narrow job classification. Without cross-functional experience, it’s no wonder they don’t understand each other’s problems!

Compensation systems

Oftentimes, organizations may say that pay is tied to performance, but a closer look indicates otherwise. What has become increasingly popular in the United States is tying a substantial amount of an employee’s compensation to profits, achieving team goals, or providing options to buy company stock at a fixed, low price.

Organizations are sometimes reluctant to make such a significant change, but without a meaningful, clear, monetarily significant compensation policy that rewards cooperation, it’s like a four horse team on a stagecoach with one of the horses pointed the wrong way. You can get somewhere, but it will be slow and not much fun.

Image licensed from

About the author

David ChaudronDavid Chaudron, PhD is managing partner of Organized Change consultancy, He has over 30 years experience in using employee surveys. Their website is He is the author of “Master all you Survey”, available on Amazon.