What Are Cross Functional Teams? Strengths and Weaknesses

The simplest definition for a Cross Functional team is groups made up of people from different areas of an organization (Sales, Engineering, Marketing) that are set up in units to make overall decisions for a company.

Cross Functional Teams can either be the main form of organizational structure or part of an overall hierarchical structure. 

Over recent years, Cross Functional Teams have become more popular for three main reasons: they improve coordination and integration, span organizational boundaries, and speed the production cycle time in new product development. 

Cross Functional Teams are similar to conventional work teams, but they differ in a few key ways. 

One way they differ is that these Cross Functional Teams usually have obligations and/or loyalties to their department that supersedes all else (i.e. a marketing person believes a certain task is more important because it is most valuable to marketing). 

Beyond this, some companies assemble Cross Functional Teams on a part-time basis to specifically get a particular task accomplished creating undue pressure on the teams to produce results. For these part time teams, it’s imperative to have stable and effective team communication. 

There are a few specific necessities to keep in mind when assembling Cross Functional Teams: 

Team members must be open minded and highly motivated. 

Team members must come from the correct area of the organization to impact a specific task. 

A strong team leader with excellent communication skills and clear vision must be put in a position of authority. 

The team must have a strong sense of authority and accountability to succeed. 

Adequate resources must be provided by leadership, including both moral and financial. 

But above all, communication is key. If there is adequate communication across channels, there is a high chance for success. 

The biggest benefit your organization will receive from a Cross Functional Team is a boost in creativity and cohesiveness where everyone feels like they have an important and decisive function.

How to Develop a Cross Functional Team:

Assemble The Right Team:

There are specific sets of skills required to have an apt Cross Functional Team. The feature being worked on will determine who is required to become a part of it. 

The oft overlooked requirement for well oiled Cross Functional teams is assembling individuals that have a similar set of skills, just in different departments. 

The most important of these skills ought to be that they are adequate self starters that don’t need a lot of direction, but have authority to make decisions.

Have a Defined Leader:

While it’s not an absolute requirement to have a defined leader, if there aren’t clearly defined objectives for a cross functional team, you can end up having a balagan of a bunch of moving parts working in opposite directions. 

Finding a leader is easier said than done, but having someone that can simultaneously develop individuals working within a defined spectrum will create a successful team. 

A good leader will delegate, educate, whilst giving autonomy to the individuals working within that organization.

Set Clearly Defined Goals

Before even assembling your team, it’s imperative that you have definitive goals set. This is for the same reasons as mentioned previously, you want your Cross Functional Team working with specific objectives in mind so they don’t end up working in different directions. 

There are a few ways to clearly define goals, but one of the most efficient ways is to create a clear roadmap

A good feature roadmap will allow you to assign tasks, dates, and team members to specific tasks to maximize their abilities and keep everyone on track. 

Perhaps non-intuitively, this structure will actually allow team members more autonomy as they will have a defined expectation of them and execute accordingly.

Align the Team

Now that leadership is set and you have clearly defined goals, it’s time to align the team

Team alignment is one of the most important, but most difficult tasks to accomplish. 

Essentially, team alignment requires balancing all of the opinions and observations of your team and turning them into clean, actionable prioritization. 

The balancing act of prioritizing can be tricky, which is why we have created an alignment matrix so you can see where your Cross Functional Team aligns the priorities organically. 

Shared Success

Once you have the alignment of your team down pat (thanks Chisel!), it’s vital to focus on the wins. 

No matter how big or small a priority may be, anything that’s completed deserves some level of acknowledgement by the stakeholders. 

The goal, which needs to be constantly reinforced by leadership, is to lead to the completion of a common objective and all successes ought to lead to that objective.

Always Reevaluate

The beauty of having a roadmap and a constant team alignment functionality is the ability to reevaluate at every step. 

None of these functionalities ought to be stagnant and need to malleable as different priorities and tasks come to the forefront. 
Being able to go back to the drawing board and request a team vote on prioritization for a new feature is constantly useful. Try it here.

The Pitfalls of Cross Functional Teams

Although there is definitive value in having high performing cross functional teams, there is a 75% chance that a cross functional team will be dysfunctional, according to a study done by Benham Tabrizi of 95 teams throughout 25 corporations selected by a panel of academics and experts. 

“Dysfunctional” in this study means you fail to meet three of five criterias. The criteria are as follows: 

  • Meeting a planned budget
  • Staying on schedule
  • Adhering to specifications
  • Meeting customer expectations
  • Maintaining alignment with the company’s corporate goals

Interestingly enough, the highest success rate for cross-functional teams came when there was a clearly defined cross functional governance or a single, high-level executive champion.

The success rate was a whopping 76% compared to a paltry 19% when there was only moderate governance in place.

So without further ado, here are the main challenges of creating a successful cross functional team.

No Clearly Defined Leader

This is a clear challenge illustrated by the aforementioned information. 

Without a clear leader, the chance of success drops from 76% to 19%. This alone should be enough to determine the value of having a clearly defined leader/leadership structure from the get go. 

Misaligned Goals and Priorities

On a microscale, an employee takes into account their total responsibilities when deciding how to personally prioritize. If the cross functional tasks aren’t part of the employees overall assessment, they will in turn give it a lower priority. 

This is why having a clear and definitive roadmap for employees is imperative so they know what they’re working on.

In that same vein, making sure priorities are succinctly laid out will allow leaders to acknowledge and praise good performance without micromanaging tasks. 

Something like an alignment matrix will allow your team to be able to have a helicopter view of what features the stakeholders feel strongly about and which ones can have a lower overall priority. 

Too Little or Too Much Communication

It’s easier to assess what this means in context of how it can look.

Too little communication would be not looping people into things they are working on specifically or tangentially. Not giving enough information can leave stakeholders in the dark. 

In that same vein, having too many meetings or an avalanche of emails can leave a stakeholder feeling like they’re constantly playing catch up without ever having the opportunity to complete their necessary tasks. 

Lack of Trust 

Bringing stakeholders together from different departments and having them work together in a collective group is no small task. 

Most of the time, these individuals don’t interact with others beyond their specific departments. 

Therefore, the best strategy to employ is to incrementally build trust and that can only be done from within. 

Having the team focus on small tasks accomplished builds trust over time knowing that everyone will complete necessary requirements at the times intended. The results will not happen overnight, but they will happen. 

Lack of Diversity

A culture of inclusivity is invaluable, not only for your cross functional team, but across your whole organization. 

Your customer base will most likely come from a variety of different backgrounds, therefore, it stands to reason that your stakeholders ought to come from a variety of backgrounds as well. 

Creating anything through a single lens hamstrings the opportunity for creating for a limitless swath of people when all perspectives are taken into consideration.

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