How to improve cross functional teamwork

A cross-functional team has members with varying skill sets, all working towards a common goal. In business, this means people from different departments and levels of the organisation working together to solve problems. In some instances, these teams can include people outside of the organisation.

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The days of teams organised under top-to-bottom hierarchy are long gone. Organisations are slowly waking up to the idea of cross functional collaboration. Well thought out cross functional teams can lead to agility and innovation from project planning to contract management. What is a cross-functional team and how can your team achieve its advantages? 

What is a cross-functional team?

A cross-functional team has members with varying skill sets, all working towards a common goal. In business, this means people from different departments and levels of the organisation working together to solve problems. In some instances, these teams can include people outside of the organisation.

Which of the following is an example of a cross-functional business process?

A)   A team of marketing specialists, accountants and end-developers working towards a new contract with suppliers.

B)   A team, including the CEO, mid-level manager and customer representative planning a new product design.

If you said both of them, you would be right. Both are examples of cross functionality. They fall inside the definition because they showcase the core essence of cross functionality. You have a group of people with varied expertise and even different hierarchical status within the company working towards a common objective.

At its best, cross functional collaboration can lead to a culture of improvement and development. When a team is working cross functionally, it can result in innovation and ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking.

Why is cross functional collaboration so tricky?

In theory, cross collaborating groups sound ideal. You are getting different levels of leadership and expertise working towards solving common goals. What could possibly go wrong?

It turns out quite a bit. A great theory doesn’t always lead to functionality in practice. Many companies find cross-functional groups difficult to manage. A study discussed in Harvard Business Review found 75% of cross functional teams dysfunctional. What’s wrong?

The main things making this type of collaboration tricky are:

  • Lack of goals and objectives – Problem-solving requires clarified objectives and goals from the onset. If these are not defined, and if they don’t align, teams will end up working ineffectively. The solution is to create clear objectives and align those with a reward structure that benefits all team members.
  • Trust issues – If the members view the organisation as compartmentalised groups, it can be hard to build trust. The leadership must incentivise collaboration by aligning goals and creating benefits to the whole organisation, not just certain departments.
  • Lack of effort – Similarly, if the team doesn’t have enough individual accountability, the result can lead to a reduction of effort. In short, one person will do all the work. Groups must find ways to measure individual effort and performance.
  • Communication issues – Cohesive cross functional teamwork needs to be built on effective communication. It is crucial to establish common language and use technology to make communication easy.

What are the benefits of cross functional teamwork?

The above outlines some of the possible cons of cross functional teamwork. Without effective leadership and the right environment, teams can end up dysfunctional. But that’s not because cross functionality is somehow a bad strategy. It’s more to do with a lack of foundations for cross functional teams to work as intended.

The benefits of cross functional collaboration are rather enticing. When you lay the foundations to it, you can enjoy:

  • Better innovation – People from different departments and with different skill sets bring different perspectives to problem solving. You get innovative solutions and ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking. Old ideas are challenged and your organisation rethinks systems from a fresh perspective.
  • Faster development – You should consider that to collaborate is a synonym to learning. Having different people working together will spread knowledge across to organisations. It helps people develop a bigger picture and learn how the different elements influence the work they do and vice versa.

Examples on how to put in place cross functional groups

If the above pros and cons tell us anything, it’s that cross functionally working teams can be easy to set up but they are hard to master. If you want to enjoy the benefits, the leadership needs to focus on laying a proper foundation for cross functionality.

How can this be achieved? You should:

1. Focus on diversity

A good team isn’t just a randomly selected mix of people from different departments and levels of the organisation. You should focus on diversity on many levels. Diversify the team in areas such as ability, skills, seniority, tenure, gender and location.

2. Leverage expertise

Diversity is crucial for achieving results with cross functional collaboration. But it shouldn’t come at a cost of expertise. It is crucial to leverage expertise in the teams by including members with the most knowledge. Pairing a person of knowledge with a novice can lead to education and innovation.

3. Measure the impact

Measure the impact the team has to promote engagement and effort. Teams should have continuous feedback sessions and systems in place that establish clear objectives to work with. You should also measure the rate of investment and provide the data back to the team.

4. Align incentives

Cross functional teams need to feel like everyone’s input is important and leads to a beneficial outcome. You don’t want a system that only rewards a specific department, for example. Leaders should create systems where people are rewarded for improving the whole organisation, not just sections of it.

5. Emphasise communication

Leadership should focus on building great communication systems across the organisation. You want seamless tools that make communication fast and easy. Communication between departments shouldn’t be hindered by misaligned technology. You also want to encourage random interactions and make ‘accidental’ communication a thing.

 

Creating a fruitful environment for cross functional collaboration

Cross collaboration breaks traditional hierarchical systems. But this doesn’t mean that management shouldn’t lay the foundations for cross functionality. There needs to be a concerted effort to nurture these teams and collaborations. The benefits can be tricky to achieve if you lack proper communication, clear objectives and functional alignment.

Technology plays an important part of cross functional teams. Platforms like Contractbook result in easier collaboration between different departments and outside organisations. You can get different people talking and collaborating in a safe environment that’s not tied to a specific time and place. Flawless and seamless communication ensures cross functional teams work as intended and innovation will follow.


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