Problem-solving within businesses takes many forms, including searching for solutions within a single department. For example, members of an HR team with access to multiple communication tools might come together to determine ways to improve employee understanding of medical insurance benefits. In such cases, the solution is developed, refined, and implemented within one team.
However, some problems require a more whole-company approach. How to continue to work together effectively during the COVID-19 pandemic is one situation that required a cross-functional approach that involved executive teams as well as HR, IT, marketing, customer care, and other departments. This cross-functional collaboration allowed companies to be more effective in their solutions.
In the sections below, we discuss the benefits of such cross-functional teams, how to create them, what makes them successful, and tips for effective cross-functional communication. But first, let’s take a closer look at the nature of cross-functional teams.
What Is the Meaning of Cross-Functional?
Most companies are structured with various departments that perform different tasks. For example, the executive team makes high-level decisions and engages in planning. The IT team takes care of technology within the company. The marketing department creates content and places it where potential customers are likely to see it. Members of these teams perform similar functions to each other.
So, what is a cross-functional team? A cross-functional team is a workgroup that includes members from different areas of the company in order to pursue a specific goal. Such teams are commonly created when a goal requires input from various departments. For example, a cross-functional team might be created when the company is considering a big change such as new technology. The team can help gather information from their departments and contribute ideas from a variety of perspectives.
Cross-functional teams might be temporary, as with the example of adopting new technology. Or they might be permanent, such as when a company needs ongoing input from various departments. An example might be the topic of supporting women in the workplace. Whether temporary or permanent, these teams function best when they are working toward a specific goal.
Challenges and Benefits of Cross-Functional Teams
Cross-functional teams provide a variety of benefits to the organization. These benefits primarily arise from the different interactions that take place when you include team members from across departments.
A team that includes people from different departments is likely to come up with concepts that combine different ideas, creating a synergistic platform from which to consider the challenge at hand. For example, a permanent cross-functional team that addresses how to support women in the workplace might benefit from the combination of HR and IT working together to find technology tools that can give women support throughout their workday.
Similarly, the presence of representatives from various departments with specialized skills is likely to result in ideas that haven’t been considered before. For example, with a new technology rollout, the sales team might get involved in gathering opinions from existing customers about what they like and dislike about the current customer portal. These individuals have relationships with customers that the IT department doesn’t.
Both of the above examples show the kinds of effective problem-solving that can occur within a cross-functional team that would likely not have emerged if a single department were to address these issues on its own. Project management software provider Asana states, “A cross-functional team disrupts a standard way of thinking and can introduce new ideas and processes to a team—creating a better result for consumers.”
Additionally, cross-functional teams provide a way for departments to connect with each other. Even if it is just a few members from each department on the team, these people bring back information from the team, which helps each department understand its role in the larger organization and its connection to other functions. This situation builds a sense of cohesion within the company.
While these benefits are highly valuable, cross-functional teams do encounter challenges as well.
One to watch out for is a poorly defined goal, which can cause a cross-functional team to flounder and never arrive at helpful recommendations for the company. The cure for this challenge is to start with the problem the company is trying to solve and ensure the goal will solve that problem and is measurable and achievable.
Even if a team’s goal is well defined, its members may have priorities that are different from the goal of the team or other team members. Team members may be pursuing their own goals, which can prevent productive movement in the right direction. The worst-case scenario is when one or more team members want to take control of the team for their own purposes. This challenge can be addressed with strong leadership that keeps everyone on the same path.
Another challenge is one that all new groups face, which is learning how to work together and discovering each other’s strengths and how they best contribute to the goals of the group. Interpersonal issues might become a problem, and it is the leader’s responsibility to ensure all group members work well together.
Finally, individual team members may spend more time working on the cross-functional team, taking away from the time they have available to work on their assigned duties and limiting professional advancement. According to Forbes Advisor, “To prevent this, some organizations institute limited terms for group members, with members from the various departments rotating into and out of the team to prevent stagnation.”
How to Create a Cross-Functional Team Structure
What is a cross-functional team structure? It is the creation of a team that includes members from across various company roles.
Identify a goal.
The first step in supporting a cross-functional team structure is to clearly identify the goal of the team. For example, the goal could be to increase revenue by 20% within the next year. Think about how the goal aligns with the company’s mission, such as increasing shareholder value or bringing continuous innovation to the marketplace.
Assemble the team.
Start with the team that would normally be involved in decisions about the matter at hand. For the goal of increasing revenue, that might be the sales team. Assign someone from the sales team as the leader, then consider what additional input might be needed and which teams could provide it.
In this case, the customer care team is closest to customers and may understand what would encourage them to make more purchases. The marketing team has likely done research about the target market and therefore could also provide valuable contributions. The IT team might be able to speak to the technology experience customers are currently having and what improvements could be made. The HR team could provide information about how many new employees might be needed to accommodate an increase in revenue.
Diversity of perspectives is critical on a cross-functional team, and other types of diversity are important as well. They include race, gender, age, background, and experience level. Such diversity helps cross-functional teams get out of the siloed way of thinking that the team is designed to avoid in the first place.
Plan the work.
Determine how the team will function. This planning may include when the team will meet and how it will communicate between meetings. Project management and productivity tools can help with organizing meeting notes and sharing ideas. Set milestones for meeting targets that will eventually get you to your goal.
Finally, consider in advance ways of dealing with challenges and conflicts. For example, seek out an executive to settle any conflicting visions and hold the team accountable. Clearly define roles to keep the team functioning efficiently. And consider what might happen if the team ultimately determines its goal isn’t achievable.
Don’t wait until the end of the team’s work to determine how effective it is. Rather, set milestones for interim goals and take the time to determine whether they have been met and what can be done to improve the team’s effectiveness throughout its duration. If subcommittees are created, they should report to the entire team on a regular basis.
What Makes Cross-Functional Teams Successful?
What is a cross-functional team at its most successful? In addition to some of the suggestions for creating successful cross-functional groups already mentioned (such as ensuring diversity within the team, using healthy conflict-resolution strategies, and having clear goals), companies that want to use the cross-functional approach should consider the following strategies.
One of the worst-case scenarios for a cross-functional team is gathering together and communicating over a period of months, coming up with robust solutions, meeting the team’s goal, and having its work ignored. A successful cross-functional team must have the respect of leaders within the organization. According to Forbes Advisor, “It is important to establish [the team’s] authority regarding the project and to reinforce their goals throughout the duration of the work.”
Respect from company leadership might not be enough to ensure that cross-functional teams’ recommendations are implemented. The team should include company leaders, whether or not their titles reflect that role. These professionals are people who have the ability to influence others and gain the buy-in needed throughout the organization to benefit as much as possible from the team’s work.
Traditional business departments have their own sense of identity based on the kind of work they do. For example, a sales team might have a friendly, competitive feel to it as each salesperson strives to meet sales goals. Marketing teams are often creative as team members work to come up with new ways to talk about company products and services. Cross-functional teams don’t have a similar connecting element, so they should engage in team-building activities and find ways to identify with the themes of their common work.
Tips for Effective Cross-Functional Communication
What is a cross-functional team’s communication strategy? Communication is one of the most important aspects of any kind of team, and cross-functional teams are no exception. The following video offers tips for effective communication within teams, and others are listed below.
In today’s professional environment, team members have the ability to communicate in many ways. Cross-functional teams should have the flexibility to incorporate the various ways in which people most effectively communicate. However, it is also important to limit the number of communication channels so that messages, documents, and important conversations don’t get lost. Teams should have a way to gather all the information together in one place to create a complete record of their work.
As mentioned above, today’s professionals have many options for communicating, including a wide variety of technology solutions. So, which tools should a cross-functional team use? The shortest answer to that question is the tools that work best for that team. Each company has its own solutions, and it makes sense to use them to the team’s best advantage, rather than reinventing the wheel. The following are examples of tools that can increase effective communication.
Video call platforms
As a result of living through the COVID era, most professionals are now very familiar with platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. These platforms enable groups to engage in meetings without being physically present together. While they do include some limitations, these platforms enable a wide variety of communication, including speaking, presentations, screen sharing, brainstorming, and even breakout groups.
Teams can use all of these functions to further their communication and their mission. They are ideal for situations in which team members may not be available at the same time and place on a regular basis. However, teams should endeavor to meet in person periodically to enhance their cohesion. Any online meetings should be recorded to add to the team’s records and to be available for anyone who must miss the life meeting.
Messaging applications like Slack enable impromptu conversations and idea sharing. They can be compared to the notion of a water cooler that, in days past, was the place where people who worked together in offices would congregate and have unplanned conversations that might lead to ideas that could be implemented in ongoing projects.
With so many new communication technologies available, many have drifted away from email. However, email may work well for some teams. If it is already commonly used within the company, it makes sense for a cross-functional team to continue to use it in similar ways. One of the advantages of email is that it can be accessed from anywhere, enabling team members to participate in communication and tasks on their own timeline when they are traveling or working from home.
Communication works best when a team can establish rules for it up front. According to corporate software provider Atlassian, “Team members must feel safe speaking up, even if they are disagreeing.” On a high level, team leaders can establish rules for exactly how team members should communicate.
For example, each meeting might start with a check-in, in which each team member has a certain number of minutes to share what they’ve been working on and their progress. The meeting might also include an agenda for discussion items, as well as a time at the end for team members to raise any concerns.
Team members might be expected to check in via a messaging app or other tool between meetings. Additionally, they might be invited to reach out to each other to get advice or talk through any issues.
Cross-functional team leaders might want to review with their teams the rules for active listening and constructive feedback. Companies might even want to invest in a course for members of cross-functional teams to participate in to elevate their skills in this area. Finally, there should be rules for what happens when there is conflict between team members.
Communication on cross-functional teams works best when all team members know that they will be informed of any important developments. In particular, team leaders and others should resist the temptation to shy away from bad news. For example, if the team’s efforts are not leading in the right direction, that situation should be seen as an opportunity rather than as a reason to despair.
The need for effective communication within cross-functional teams cannot be overstated. Therefore, it is helpful to choose a team leader with strong communication skills. They should use these skills to lead by example, showing team members how to listen closely, provide productive input, and resolve conflicts.
The key to effective cross-functional teams is effective collaboration. When it works well, collaboration can serve to not only solve the issue at hand but also promote a collaborative culture across the organization. Such a culture is critical in many aspects of work, including goal setting, problem-solving, and working together on a daily basis. Using cross-functional teams is a great way to make collaboration a more intrinsic part of the business.