Want Better Cross-Functional Teams? 6 Tips [2021]

Six Tips to Improve Your Cross Functional Team Today

What is a Cross Functional Team?

A Cross Functional Team is a group of people from different disciplines, performing specialized tasks, coordinated to deliver value. A Cross Functional Team has a common purpose or vision and a clear goal. Its goal has milestones and a completion date that everyone on the team shares. Team members make the success of the project a priority and they allocate enough time to make it happen.

6 tips for Better Cross-Functional Teams

1. Find the right leader

The right leader is someone who is trustworthy, competent, capable and of the right stature for the challenge. The team leader ideally is someone experienced in being both a member and a leader of Cross Functional Teams.

2. Have qualified people in their roles

People and their relationships are incredibly important to innovation. How much more effective do you think your most productive contributor is in relation to your average contributor? Whether you think this ratio is high in your organization or not, no one can argue that individuals make a huge difference. Teams consist of people and it’s imperative to get the chemistry right.

3. Ensure their roles are clear

On the best Cross Functional Teams, roles are clearly defined. Team members know what they are supposed to do and how they are expected to relate to each other and to the team lead. The Cross Functional Team also has a clear decision-making model. Everyone knows who is making the decisions and the escalation path, if required, is clear.

4. Allocate team resources optimally [people, budget]

Even the best cross functional teams, with the very best members, get hamstrung without the right funding or adequate facilities for prototyping or testing. Management’s job is to make sure that the team has everything they need to be successful. Make sure your people are not spread too thin. Between one and two projects is the optimum load, though a dedicated team is best if you want the team to succeed.

5. Make explicit ground rules with management

Cross Functional Teaming is more effective when senior leaders, the team leader, and team members have clear rules of engagement. They know their roles and responsibilities and how they interrelate to what everyone else is doing. They also have a clear and explicit escalation path to right the team should it begin to go off track.

6. Have clear goals and clear communication

Effective Cross Functional Teams have a clearly agreed-upon goal that is measurable and they also continue to communicate throughout the project. Many Agile teams have short daily meetings, which is a best practice for high performance teamwork. Clear objectives and good communication skills help propel teams to create spectacular results.

Benefits of Cross-Functional teams?

Accountability is a major benefit of Cross-Functional project Teams. Consistent use of teams is a proven way to accomplish any corporate objective that requires multiple disciplines so that it produces a result that is accountable. A Cross Functional Team is assembled to produce a specific result in a fast and efficient manner.

Cross Functional Teams work well for innovation. Innovations often come from combinations of disciplines. Cross Functional Teams often exceed expectations because of the catalytic nature of putting talented minds together. Cross-pollination can occur when distinctions from one domain port to another, fostering an environment that facilitates innovation. It would be a stretch to assert that Cross Functional Teams cause it, but cross functional collaboration is correlated with innovation.

In the case of Product development, cross functional teams can reduce time to market and increase product throughput and efficiency by having a more effective decision-making process.  While product development is one example, there are many examples of cross functional teams:  IT, construction, marketing, finance, HR, and generalized process improvement.

Cross Functional Teams also encourage employee engagement. A Cross Functional Team works together as part of a cohesive group with a common goal, a social milieu that many people find uniquely rewarding and engaging. More engaged employees perform better, and work longer and harder, with satisfaction. Cross Functional Teams are a way to get the most out of your people.

A Cross Functional Team also concentrates resources and improves their efficiency. Team leaders check to see that there are no gaps in skills or required resources. They use resources in a targeted way that employs them and then releases them when the project has no further need for them.

How do you develop Cross-Functional Collaboration?

The process of developing a given cross functional team must begin with the leader. In most organizations a team leader is appointed (unless we are talking about self managed teams where the leader emerges from the group). The leader must have the skills and experience to coordinate teams, and deliver successful results, on time and on budget.

When projects start in new product development, or other project based activities begin, leaders need to understand the goal of the project and what skills are necessary to achieve it. Often this leader is from product development program management or the product management functional organizations.

A development team may often draw upon more technical project managers. They need to analyze the skill sets required for success, populating the team with different skill sets and from different areas within the company. The leader works with senior managers to populate the product team with the key skills, calling out where there are gaps, and where the organization might need to acquire resources.

Have Clear Decision-Making

Once formed, the team and team leader agree on their respective roles and responsibilities. Divide the project into tasks and map their dependencies. Determine and map the interdependencies between each task and the other functions and individuals. Assign a Directly Responsible Individual to each task. Here’s a template for a modified RACI chart that can help.  This is especially critical if the team members come from different departments.

The leader’s responsibility to the cross functional team is 1) to communicate to the team the goal or vision of the project and 2) to develop a path to get there. The leader is also responsible for acquiring the right resources for the team, and for ongoing project management, such as tracking deliverables and milestones.   In the case of product development, additional responsibilities are required such as the ability to work with sales and finance organizations and ensure that their requirements are satisfied and that communication is fluid.

Resource the Team with Subject Matter Experts, too

Rarely do project teams start a project with adequate resources to deliver on a predictable schedule. More likely, one of the key risk mitigation efforts is to manage the ebb and flow of resource availability as individuals work on different projects at different times – but when you need a subject matter expert, the team can not wait until one is available. And then, invariably, something falls through the cracks, and throws the project off the rails because you didn’t have the right resources in place. This is one big difference between a group of people and those on a high performance Cross Functional Team.

Unclear definitions of roles like program manager, the core team, and adjacent teams, lead to communications and decision making issues that cause schedule slips, cost overruns and organizational chaos. This is especially true for companies with organizational silos.

How are Agile Teams Different?

Working on Cross Functional Teams is a small portion of Agile development. In Agile development, Cross Functional Teams (called Scrums) hold brief, daily standup meetings to eliminate blockers. Roles such as the ScrumMaster, Product Owner and Team Member are carefully defined. Teams divide their work into Sprints and assess their progress with Story Point burndown charts.

Although Cross Functional Teaming is a part of Agile, it is not dependent on any other aspect of it. Organizations performing project-based work of any type, be it a new product development project or an infrastructure improvement effort, can use Cross Functional Teams to great advantage.

What is an Example of a Cross Functional Team Model?

A diagram called a Cross Functional Team Model can help you with an example of a cross functional team.  This example of a cross functional team is from a new product development project, showing the typical functions for a system level product containing hardware and software.  The Project Team Wheel is an organizational diagram of a Cross Functional Team, based on a core team concept.

Put the team leader in the center of the team wheel. Then sketch out the core team around the leader, including the key functions and individuals within them. Outside of the core Cross Functional Team, place the extended team members, the functions that will support or augment your team intermittently throughout the project.

Figure: Product Development Cross Functional Team Example Diagram
Figure: Product Development Cross Functional Team Example Diagram

Download Cross Functional Team Diagram

Cross Functional Teams Diagram

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Most projects are interdependent and complex. They require technical skills but not on a full time basis. The Project Team Wheel identifies which Cross Functional Team members cover which functions.  This model might be developed in conjunction with the human resources organization.

Using the Project Team Wheel at the beginning of a project ensures that you have a clear team structure with established leadership, and with all necessary functions on board. The tool also helps you to establish who has responsibility for top-level deliverables.

What is a Cross-Functional Team Map?

The Project Team Wheel is a diagram that identifies the roles and names of people on the Cross Functional Team itself, as well as part-time, extended team members.

What are the Benefits to Cross-Functional Teams?

  • Identifies skill gaps on a team.
  • Ensures you’ve accounted for all stakeholders.
  • Minimizes unwelcome surprises when you fail to have needed resources.

What Business Problems Does It Solve?

It’s not uncommon for projects to start before all the required resources are available. This tool provides the platform for making informed decisions around staffing, while it helps you resolve gaps in skill sets.

What Else Do You Need To Know?

The tool does not evaluate the quality or effectiveness of the resources assigned. Two factors that often drive the effectiveness are level of skill and resource availability due to conflicting priorities. Both scenarios require the vigilance of Project Management.

How do you work cross functionally?

Most companies underestimate or overlook the benefit and opportunity that come from high performance Cross Functional Teams. They also fail to account for the opportunity cost of sub-optimal team performance: both in hard costs (delayed revenue, higher product costs, and higher support costs for low-quality products) and soft costs (poor product reviews, lack of innovation, team fatigue, and low morale).

Additional Suggestions for Cross-Functional Teams

Define roles and responsibilities as clearly as possible

Defining team roles and responsibilities seems like a trivial task that is more bureaucratic than useful. But the lack of clarity around cross-functional deliverables and dependencies is a key driver in missed opportunities to reduce cycle time, manage resource gaps, and stem team chaos.

Having clarity around who is doing what and when will free up teams to focus on the work required to innovate and deliver products to market.  You might want to tackle this as part of a team building activity.

Implement a core-team model for the Cross Functional Team

Implementing a core team model is the most effective way to optimize a project team’s performance, reduce cycle time, and ensure that the extended team is functioning efficiently.

Cross functional teams typically consist of four to six functional team members, under a team leader (or Product Owner). Of course different organizations will have different teams.  And they would draw from different functional areas.  For example, in a product development project these leads might include representatives from program management, product management, engineering, design, manufacturing, and quality assurance. They share the responsibility of delivering the project within the defined objectives.

The core team meets frequently, typically once per week. It is responsible for communicating with the extended team. With an emphasis on strong leadership skills, the team can serve as an effective nucleus for driving execution, escalating project issues, and managing cross functional dependencies.

Empower the Cross Functional Team with a high level of authority

If you establish a culture of team accountability across your organization, and empower your team to drive daily decision making, you will see measurable gains in team members’ ability to creatively innovate and shorten cycle time. While there are some circumstances where command-and-control leadership is appropriate, we’ve found that if you use it as the norm, it will result over time in lower accountability, demotivated teams, and delays.  Nevertheless make sure you empower your project managers.

Giving the team a maximum of responsibility is a strategic investment in attracting the best talent. High-performance teams consist of high performers — both individually and as a team. High performers on cross functional teams thrive on accountability. If you make the team accountable, you will tend to attract the best people.

Foster a culture of trust and collaboration

Teams can only achieve high performance if they work in an environment of trust and collaboration. Anything less means that individuals will shift their focus from the common good to their own survival.

Notice what happens in your organization when bad things happen: when the schedule slips, a quality issue has stopped the manufacturing line, or the product cost is exceeding the margin target. How does your organization respond? Teams achieve high performance when they know they can deliver bad news (with recommendations for mitigation and resolution).

A Cross Functional Team is more likely to achieve high performance when they work in an environment that emphasizes problem solving rather than a culture that is about finding the guilty and blaming them. And because senior managers have created an environment of empowerment and trust, they get projects back on track faster than those teams that work in a less trusting environment.

Have clear lines of communication and clear metrics to track progress (no traffic lights!)

Having ways to communicate efficiently and effectively with project sponsors and executives is the best way to build trust between managers and the cross functional team.

This includes relatively “frictionless” ways to provide relatively frequent written updates (weekly or biweekly). It can be as simple as a planning/doing/done list for Agile methods; or a project dashboard.  Slack and other chat methods are effective ways to increase velocity too.

Figure: Cross Functional Team Tracking
Figure: Cross Functional Team Tracking

Reporting progress is also important. For example, with a traditional development process, tracking progress with a vertical line drawn on a Gantt chart is one of the fastest ways to show progress. If all milestones are on track, it is a straight line. If a task is behind schedule, the progress line will deviate to the left indicating the true progress of a team on that task. Traffic lights (Red-Yellow-Green) are a terrible way to show progress as they are too subjective.

With Agile programs, a story burndown chart is the best way to show a team’s progress.  The great thing about Agile is that tasks are all estimated by the team, and only when the task (story or feature) is completed are the points subtracted from the starting backlog.

In Summary succeed, a Cross-Functional Team needs, at a minimum:

  1. Find the right leader
  2. Have qualified people in their roles
  3. Ensure their roles are clear
  4. Allocate team resources optimally [people, budget]
  5. Make explicit ground rules with management
  6. Have clear goals and clear communication

Product Development Expert

John Carter is a widely respected expert on product development. He is an inventor of Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones and designer of Apple’s New Product Process. As Founder of TCGen Inc., he has consulted for Abbott, Amazon, Apple, Cisco, HP, IBM, Mozilla, Roche, and 3M.