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Working in Cross-Functional Teams

Design04-10-2024

What is a cross-functional team? 

Unlike functional teams, where members share similar roles, a cross-functional teams consist of experts from various disciplines and backgrounds working collaboratively towards a common goal, whether it be to solve a problem or to complete a project. A cross-functional team thrives on the synergy derived from combining varied perspectives. Each team member contributes unique insights, allowing for a holistic approach to problem-solving and innovation. 

An effective cross-functional team needs people coming from various teams to be assigned to a project from beginning to end. A cross-functional team should be composed of the relevant talent for the project, for example, designers, data analysts, engineers, managers, content experts, and marketing and business analysts, all working together towards the same vision. Cross-functional teams can be independent from teams formed around formal reporting structures.  

Let’s look at the difference between functional and cross-functional teams.  

Examples of functional teams 

Three teams represented by characters wearing the same colour shirts: the design team in green, the engineering team in blue and white, the product team in red.
This image depicts a functional team structure. Unlike cross-functional teams, functional teams perform specific organizational functions. They’re composed of a manager and their subordinates for a particular functional area, such as design, engineering, or product teams. 

Examples of cross-functional teams 

Three teams, Team A, Team B, and Team C, each with characters all wearing different shirts, to show that they contain a mix of functions.
This image depicts a cross-functional team structure. Unlike functional teams, cross-functional teams consist of experts in various specialties (or functions) working together on various organizational tasks. A website designer, engineer and product designer could find themselves on the same cross-functional project team. 

Benefits of working as a cross-functional team

 Aerial view of four people propelling a rowboat through water.
In the sport of rowing, each rower is numbered by boat position in ascending order from the bow or the stern. Each role, combined with effective teamwork, is crucial to a successful race. 
  • Breaking down silos: The strength of cross-functional teams lies in their ability to break down silos, fostering a more integrated and efficient work environment. By combining the collective intelligence and skills of people from different fields or disciplines, these teams are well positioned to navigate challenges, drive creativity, and deliver comprehensive solutions that reflect a rich amalgamation of talents and perspectives. For this reason, cross-functional teams are catalysts for adaptability and success, playing a pivotal role in shaping the future of collaborative work structures. 
  • Promoting collaboration and innovation: Working closely with colleagues from different functional areas exposes you to new knowledge areas and disciplines you may not have encountered before. It fosters collaboration, innovation, and joint problem-solving. It provides a platform for new ways of working. Working collaboratively towards solving a joint problem is an inspiring, empowering, and skill-building experience for employees. 
  • Increasing efficiency: As public servants, communicating regularly with your colleagues to ensure you are all on the same page means you are serving the public more efficiently. It saves time, leads to faster decision-making and harmonizes processes.  
  • Building shared understanding across the organization: When individuals with different backgrounds and expertise work together towards a common goal, they can leverage diverse perspectives and skills to find innovative solutions. Cross-functional teams build understanding and engagement between policy, design, service, and delivery. They reduce the risk of projects being "thrown over the fence" to another team without engagement, commitment, or buy-in. They help bring delivery issues—and possible solutions—to light much earlier in the design process. 
  • Boosting employee experience and retention: Cross-functional teams can enhance employee experience and retention. By working closely with colleagues from different functions, team members develop stronger connections and cohesion. Additionally, cross-functional teams offer ample opportunities for learning and skill development. Individuals can expand their knowledge across different functions, such as design, engineering, and products, as well as enhance their management and leadership skills.

Challenges of working as a cross-functional team 

  • Risk of replicating organizational hierarchies or silos: Replicating communication hierarchies or silos from the previous teams you were in can often lead to confusion and conflict between teams, instead of collaboration. Someone from the organization’s digital transformation team and somebody from the same organization’s IT team put on the same cross-functional team might have conflict because they have different approaches and each bring in a different mindset. Team members need to be reminded that they are working towards a similar end goal. 
  • Potential for generating confusion and revealing communication gaps: Cross-functional teams can reveal communication challenges, as individuals can have different communication styles. This can be particularly hard if there has been little investment in teamwork, team empowerment, and communication and conflict management skills. This can create new conflicts and lead to inefficiencies if not recognized and addressed. Since there are players from different functions working together in a cross-functional team, there is a risk that they might not land upon a clear mission or goal of work. Teams in these situations have not been able to find a way to collaborate effectively and get to that end goal, even if they have skilled people and the necessary resources, and are empowered. The key to this challenge is to keep communicating about objectives with your teammates, so that the team remains aligned. 
  • Misunderstanding your coworkers' jargon: As people in cross-functional teams come from various backgrounds or industries, they use different vocabulary and jargon. Some words, acronyms and process names used by one might not be understood by others. The same can be said for conflicting methodologies. 
  • Reluctance to adopt new ways of working: Change can be hard for people. They can be reluctant to experiment with new ways of working and resist new methodologies. This can be due to a variety of reasons, including not seeing a clear value or benefits to working in a cross-functional way, or seeing it as a threat to their expertise. Some simply don’t want to change their methods and are used to their ways of working.  

Mindsets and actions needed to succeed in a cross-functional team

 

Lifecycle of a birdwing butterfly depicted on a stick.
Butterflies undergo four stages of metamorphosis: egg, larva, pupa and adult. While they undergo a lot of change and face many challenges throughout their lifecycle, the outcome is always a beautiful set of wings and the ability to fly.

Humans are creatures of habit. Transforming ways of working rarely comes without some level of reluctance or pushback. Establishing a cross-functional team requires a mindset shift. In a siloed team, each division has its own baseline, objectives, and vision statement. In the case of cross-functional teams, team members can focus on a particular project. In some cases, team members may be part of a cross-functional team while also belonging to a functional division and contributing to the division’s work as well. The purpose of a cross-functional team is not to burden its members, but to empower them to work together, sometimes stepping outside their usual roles, to achieve the bigger goals of the department.

To ensure the success of cross-functional teams, here are some best practices: 

  • Set a clear vision for better team alignment: Team alignment is achieved when cross-functional teams and individual team members work towards the same vision. It's important to talk with your teammates and leaders regularly to make plans and prevent going off track. Set clear communication strategies to stay focused on the goal. Clearly state the main goal and set smaller goals along the way. Use methods that help everyone stay on the same page, be flexible, take responsibility, and stay focused.  

     Openly discussing limitations and risks with your team ensures everyone understands the mission and how to carry it out. A way to get a clear vision is to use the headline exercise. Imagine that your product was in a newspaper article. What headline would you want the article to feature about your work? Remember to keep it short. This activity is a useful tool for getting the team aligned and improving clarity in developing the product. 
  • Establish a space for sharing: Regularly hosting demo meetings and developing concise summaries to highlight your team's accomplishments are effective ways to promote collaboration across an organization, especially if you're not part of a cross-functional team. This could take the form of a weekly “Show the Thing” session, a biweekly demo, or sending out regular emails summarizing project updates or current challenges. This provides both internal and external colleagues with a chance to share insights, give feedback, or identify connections within your department that might not come up otherwise.  
  • Establish psychological safety: Team leaders and members should actively contribute to building a safe environment, and a culture where mistakes and failures, as well as speaking up and disagreeing openly, are seen as opportunities for learning. For instance, conduct blame-free retrospectives, lead with honesty about setbacks and failures, and thank people for raising challenging ideas. 
  • Maintain a culture of transparency: For a team to thrive, it is important to maintain a culture of transparency. This means sharing insights into your activities and clarifying how these efforts contribute to overall success. This approach and openness set the stage for what comes next in development or decision-making. 
  • Be an advocate and break barriers for your team: Take a moment to reflect on how you can support and improve cross-functional collaboration within your team. Consider acting as an advocate, perhaps connecting with your colleague directors from other divisions who may not fully grasp or see the value of it. Explore ways to empower your team, whether by removing obstacles they face or supporting their work. Leaders in different divisions can make a significant impact, even if they are not directly part of the cross-functional team.   
  • Build team charters: Consider a team charter like a guidebook for your team, outlining its purpose, its expected outcomes, and how it operates. A team charter should establish clear community guidelines to make everyone feel they are contributing and understand their responsibilities. Building team alignment through a charter includes scheduling regular check-ins and progress updates, using retrospectives, and staying adaptable.  
  • Support each other: For cross-functional teams to thrive and succeed, having teammates who are supportive is crucial. Supportive teammates show respect, promote collaboration, practice patience, and align with the team's goals. When teams lack mutual support, it becomes challenging to achieve success. Placing the burden and pressure on a single team member and expecting them to cover all discipline gaps can lead to negative dynamics. 

Give these tips a try, and you'll be on your way to building a successful cross-functional team! 

In conclusion  

Cross-functional teams can be created to help find better solutions by bringing together diverse individuals and expertise. Reaching those solutions requires effective navigation of differences. Building a cross-functional team in your organization is not a cure-all solution. What truly matters is delivering to the public efficiently in a way that works well for all those involved. 

Regardless of how your team is structured, focus on the end goal. Cross-functionality can be highly effective in reaching this objective by combining different perspectives and skills to serve a common goal. Success requires effort, practice, a healthy team and a clear mission. Both team members and organizational leadership play an important role in making cross-functionality work. Simply bringing people with diverse functions and skills into the same room doesn’t guarantee success or organizational innovation; success comes from putting in the work to make it high functioning. 

Resources 

 

Aicha-Hanna Agrane

Aicha-Hanna Agrane

Policy analyst with an expertise in global affairs, cybersecurity, and countering disinformation. | Analyste politique spécialisée en affaires internationales, cybersécurité et contre-désinformation.

Canada

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