How to Improve Your Cross-Functional Team

Cross-functional teamwork is a real necessity these days, with your company’s competitors re-engineering, TQM-ing and bringing new meaning to “lean and mean.” Improving cooperation inside a cross-functional team is different than improving cross-functional across the organization.

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

Proper membership

  • Do potential members have expertise in the problem the group must deal with?
  • Do they have political pull that can help the team fulfill their charter?
  • 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. The amount of expertise required for a group to be effective depends on the group’s purpose.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.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             A clear charter and purposeThe most frustrating experience is to be on a team without a clear direction or purpose. People meander and waffle around and after a few long meetings, members stop showing up. Team members, management and any other stakeholders should agree on this charter before the team starts on its task.

    The right connections

    Not only should team members have some political pull themselves, but have access to bigger movers and shakers. These connections should include senior executives from the functional departments the team represents.

    Achievable, noticeable results

    Well-established departments tend to have well-established measures of success, even though what’s measured is of questionable use. Cross-functional teams, however, probably have to decide what they 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. But this information may not have been collected before and the team must develop the data from scratch.

    Understood and agreed-upon ground rules

    These ground rules include the norms for the group (how to handle conflict and consensus, who writes the minutes, who facilitates the group, etc.). Equally important, ground rules should include:

  • How much time, money, people and other resources the department is willing to give to this project
  • Who can the group turn to when in trouble
  • If management doesn’t follow through, how the group will bang them on the head                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Intensive team-building up-front                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   I’ve often seen teams come together with good purpose, but through misunderstandings come apart. Consultants are called in after the damage is done. Frankly, it’s better to prevent a problem from happening than working on damage control. Up-front team-building sessions—where members’ concerns, problems and issues come out—are a healthy way of preventing problems. This team-building is especially important in cross-functional teams, to offset old department rivalries and current personality clashes that can create bombshells with the simplest of issues.Team-building sessions should include two parts. The first concerns training the team in the use of tools (problem solving, statistical process control, flow-charting, 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.
  • The second part of team-building involves training in group skills (meeting management, stages of group development, the Abilene paradox, etc.). For the most part, though, the second part involves facilitation around the specific issues that a particular team faces.

    All this training/facilitation is best done when the entire cross-functional team is present in a room, all receiving the training at the same time. Many companies mistakenly “mix and match” classroom attendance, training individuals from a variety of groups. This may make the scheduling of training easier and more efficient, but it doesn’t promote the spirit within a particular team.

    Organizational structure

    Cross-functional teams work best when they work on a specific problem and then go away. However, some cross-functional problems aren’t so easily solved.

    Organizational structure is a major influence on communication flow. If everyone needs to cross organizational boundaries to get their work done, and conflict results, organizational structure should be changed.

    One way to do this is to install matrix management, where people drawn from different 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. 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.

    Other companies blow up the functional stovepipe altogether, going to a more product- or customer-oriented structure. This may be done a company-wide basis or can be done at each location or plant the organization processes.

    Vistage speaker David Chaudron, Ph.D., is managing partner of Organized Change, based in San Diego.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *