Dos and Don’ts of Building a Cross-Functional Team

July 26, 2021

In a conventional organization, multiple departments are dedicated to specific functions— marketing, finance, human resources, operations. A lot of the time, they work separately, only sharing information when it concerns more than one department.

However, the modern demands of building and delivering software require an ability to solve numerous problems at a high speed. With that comes a need to have an entire team that reflects the variety of expertise that goes into providing solutions. This is where cross-functional teams come in.

What is a Cross-Functional Team?

A cross-functional team is a group of people from various disciplines brought together to offer their unique abilities to achieve a common goal. Not only do cross-functional teams have a mixture of functional expertise, but they also tend to contrast from the top-to-bottom hierarchy.

It is not uncommon to find a cross-functional team made up of both team members and leading decision-makers. Cross-functional teams are especially useful for organizations practicing a DevOps approach. And their value is visible in a number of ways:

  • Cross-functional teams help reduce bureaucracy in making crucial decisions. The goal here is to have the necessary representation needed when decisions have to be made quickly. This makes cross-functional teams a good fit for DevOps, where an agile mindset is key to realizing faster iterations with an increasing quality of results.
  • Cross-functional teams can also improve problem-solving. Quality and overall customer value are very important in a DevOps approach, so it’s vital to have the best answer to any question that arises. Since a cross-functional team has a variety of people across functional expertises, each member can bring different ideas to the table.

    For example, when trying to figure out how to present a product or service to get insightful customer feedback, it can help to have some input from marketing experts. These people are likely to know the right conditions in which customers will interact with a product and offer valuable feedback.
  • Cross-functional teams drive team bonding. Having people from different departments can encourage them to learn more about their differences (primarily in the work they do). This helps bring them closer and build relationships, which comes in handy when it’s time to collaborate. Thus, group-think and echo chambers are dismantled. This makes people feel more comfortable with giving unpopular/alternative opinions.

Challenges for Cross-Functional Teams

While the idea of a cross-functional team may sound ingenious and fairly simple, in practice, as much as 75% of cross-functional teams are unsuccessful. Cross-functional teams are plagued by a difference in work habits and sub-cultures. And each member coming from different parts of the organization already has a way in which they are used to working.

This makes adjusting to a new style a bit difficult. Keep in mind that it may also be unclear what this new style of working will be if every team member has their own preferences. Other challenges that cross-functional teams face include:

Non-aligned Goals

Every team member has a contribution to make toward the overall project. But it’s easy to forget the relationship between their duties and their team members’. This is common for team members who are coming in temporarily to make a few changes to the work product.

But it often leads to misunderstandings regarding questions such as when a particular member’s tasks should come into the cycle. Members also end up doing the bare minimum when it comes to their tasks. These conflicts extend into smaller details like data storage formats and other practices. The result is deliverables of varying quality and a need to revisit work product, which slows down the team.

Poor Communication

Cross-functional team members often struggle to get into a good rhythm of communication. First, they may be used to different channels, which can lead to unseen messages. Second, there could be differences in the preferred frequency of communication.

Some team members may prefer frequent messages notifying them about every substantial change made. But others may only want to receive messages regarding more significant milestones and changes. And some might prefer written summaries and brief voice notes while others want lengthier in-person meetings to dissect plans, discoveries, analyses, etc.

Failure to receive critical information in a timely, agreeable, and coherent manner can lead to errors and delayed results.

Misunderstood Roles and Chain of Command

In many cross-functional teams, a member from one department may offer a suggestion that would have to be implemented by another person. For instance, a business official may suggest a feature that tracks a particular metric regarding user behavior.

The developer and UI designer who would have to put it in place may treat it as a suggestion until someone higher up signs off on it. But the project leader may already view it as one that doesn’t need any extra permission.

Essentially, team members might have an idea of what each of them does, but don’t know the full extent of it in the context of the team’s ultimate goals. Occasionally, one team member whose work usually gravitates towards just one or two other members may not even know what exactly the others do.

Differing Tools

In many conventional organizations, digital transformation doesn’t always happen across-the-board. It is possible to find that technologies like cloud computing hadn’t penetrated the entire organization.

Additionally, several departments may be using different tools for their day-to-day tasks. Whether it’s test automation or communication about the progress of the software development lifecycle, having too many different tools can cause headaches.

Once team members start working together, it can be challenging to get all relevant data in one place and achieve comprehensive visibility.

Conflicting Methodologies

In one department, their equivalent of testing and quality assurance may always come at the very end. On the other hand, another department may employ agile methods to complete projects. When members from these differing methodology backgrounds meet, their methods of project completion may lead to schedules falling out of sync.

Dos of Building a Successful Cross-Functional Team

To build a successful cross-functional team, there are a number of boxes to check.

Concrete Leadership: On top of having a leader for each function, it’s important to have an end-to-end leader for the whole team. Every team member should also be aware of which leader calls specific shots.

Clear Objectives and Planning: It’s imperative to establish a major goal for the team from the onset and create a detailed plan/roadmap with milestones plotted on a timeline. Every team member’s ability should be presented in regard to how it feeds into the ultimate objective. Go beyond mentioning expertise and talk about tasks that the person will do.

Frequent Evaluation: Draft evaluation systems for each function within the team to ensure that they are not being graded using the wrong method. Additionally, track the overall objectives progress and analyze data to determine whether the problem is general team cohesion or a specific function.

Effective Communication:  Make sure everyone knows who they’ll spend the most time talking to and what they’ll be talking about. Get them on the same page in terms of tools, the nature/composition of messages, frequency, and other practices.

Flexibility: Structure the team in such a way that you can receive input regardless of the contributor’s physical location. Leave room for abrupt expansion and make it easy for a member to get a substitute.

This can be done by ensuring proper documentation at all times so that new entrants can get up to speed quickly. Foster an agile mindset among members so that they work in a manner that anticipates any curveballs and are able to adjust accordingly.

Bonding and Trust: Conduct exercises that help to strengthen intra-team relationships so that members are less afraid to share opinions and admit failure.

 

Don’ts of Building a Successful Cross-Functional Team

To build and maintain a continuously successful cross-functional team, avoid these mistakes:

Unwarranted Prioritization: Avoid primarily supporting just one function while neglecting the rest. This can come off as favoritism and demoralize other team members. Try to strike a balance when providing resources and catering to other demands.

When stretched thin, give each function the minimum they need to produce the maximum collective result. Don’t portray some functions as way more important than others.

Disorderly Hierarchy: Don’t create situations where a member is always running around to different members for consent to proceed with an action. Make it clear which actions are low-stakes and up to a member’s discretion, and which ones require consent from higher-ups.

Micromanagement: Try to moderate the amount of meetings that aren’t about significant announcements and checking on progress. Where creativity is needed, leave room for team members to come up with the best solutions on how to collaborate by themselves.

If this culture is not encouraged, team members will crack the minute challenges escalate and look toward leaders for solutions that aren’t available.

Blame Games: Avoid the habit of pointing fingers whenever something goes wrong or a target isn’t met. In many cross-functional teams, failure is often a result of more than one person across different functions dropping the ball.

With many tasks being dependent on others, it’s not always one person’s fault. Focus on identifying the lessons to be learnt from functions that are succeeding, especially those that can be applied in other areas too.

Conclusion

Cross-functional teams are more or less a no-brainer for some projects. Activities may be too interconnected for members of different departments to remain oblivious about each other’s work.

Just make sure not to continue running them the same exact way someone else would typically run the organization on a normal day. Always ask yourself why you brought together a diverse group of people instead of having them work apart. Take the wins as a team, and the losses too.

Søren Pedersen

Co-founder of Buildingbettersoftware and Agile Leadership Coach

Søren Pedersen is a strategic leadership consultant and international speaker. With more than fifteen years of software development experience at LEGO, Bang & Olufsen, and Systematic, Pedersen knows how to help clients meet their digital transformation goals by obtaining organizational efficiency, alignment, and quality assurance across organizational hierarchies and value chains. Using Agile methodologies, he specializes in value stream conversion, leadership coaching, and transformation project analysis and execution. He’s spoken at DevOps London, is a contributor for The DevOps Institute, and is a Certified Scrum Master and Product Owner.

You can find more of his writing at https://agilerasmus.com/wordpress/

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