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How To Succeed As A Cross-Functional Team


Glenn M. Parker
Glenn M. Parker, President, Glenn M. Parker Associates, Lawrenceville, NJ 08648, 609/895-1920.

79th Annual International Conference Proceedings - 1994 - Atlanta, GA

This paper describes the composition of cross-functional teams. It also outlines six competitive advantages, obstacles to success and strategies for the implementation of effective cross-functional teams. The paper points to the critical importance of such factors as leadership, empowerment, goal-setting, boundary management, performance appraisal, recognition, team size, interpersonal relations, and management support.

The world and the world of business are changing. Individualism is out, teamwork is in. Specialization is out, a new style generalism is in. Rigid organizational lines are out, fluid collaboration is in. Power is out, empowerment is in. Vertical hierarchical structures are out replaced by a new organizational lexicon which includes network organizations, adaptive organizations, informal organizations and horizontal organizations. Right smack in the middle of all this sits cross-functional teams composed of experts ready to move quickly and flexibly to adapt to changing organizational needs.

Recent survey results, the large number of books and conferences supplemented by plain old fashioned observation tells us that teams have become an important business strategy in today's competitive environment. Central to this shift are a series of odd-shaped, unusual looking collaborative efforts. These new styled teams are composed of people from a variety of functions who have come together with mixed bag of past relationships.

  • Some are Strangers. They have simply never met before the first meeting of the team. An automobile design engineer from Detroit may have never talked with a Ford dealer from Langhome, Pennsylvania. And, it's not just geographical separation. A marketing professional may have never run into the government affairs attorney even though they work in the same complex.

  • Some are Colleagues. They have worked together on past projects. There are a number of possibilities here. For example, if the purchasing manager and the manufacturing manager have a common understanding of customer needs, their past association can help jump-start the team. However, if they are old turf war enemies, the team will begin with some conflict to resolve.

  • Some are Friends. They know each other but have never worked together. The social studies teacher and the English have shared lunch and breaks together for years in the faculty room. Now, however, they are part of the seventh grade team where they have to develop a coordinated curriculum. The computer programmer and the accountant car pool together but now they must team up to develop a new tracking system. Sometimes informal associations play out well in more serious team environments, but not always.

The diversity of these team players creates a new culture. Therefore, it is important to understand that in creating a cross-functional team, you are fashioning a potentially powerful organizational vehicle. While it lacks the simplicity of a functional team composed of, for example, six engineers all reporting to the engineering manager, a cross-functional team has a greater chance of realizing the potential expressed in that old axiom of "the whole being greater that the sum of its parts." This group of allies, enemies and other strangers can weave together a cross-functional design that is an amalgam of many cultures.

Team sponsors and team players must understand that the beauty of the idea of putting together a diverse group of people to launch a new product, develop a new system or solve a business problem is not enough. A good concept is not enough. Diversity is not enough. In practice, it requires the migration from a parochial view of the world --- my function, my values and my goals are paramount --- to a culture which says, "we're all in this together." Success is a team success, rewards are team rewards, and if the team fails, we all share the blame. As a manager responsible for team development or a leader of a cross-functional team, the implications are clear:

  • Insist on a clear team goal and a plan to achieve it.
  • Work hard to gain the commitment of team members and other stakeholders to the team's goal.
  • Emphasize collaborative efforts and team awards.
  • Provide training which focuses on working with a diverse group of people.
  • Create a set of policies and procedures which support a team-based environment.

There are many advantages of effective cross-functional teams. While some of the pluses apply to other types of teams, too, they have a unique flavor when played out in the context of a cross-functional team. I have found that cross-functional teams bring six important competitive advantages to organizations that successfully implement and manage these teams.

  1. Speed. Cross-functional teams reduce the time it takes to get things done, especially the product development process.

  2. Complexity. Cross-functional teams improve the organization's ability to solve complex problems.

  3. Customer Focus. Cross-functional teams focus the organization's resources on satisfying the customer's needs.

  4. Creativity. By bringing together people with a variety of experiences and backgrounds cross-functional teams increase the creative capacity of the organization.

  5. Organizational Learning. Members of cross-functional teams are more easily able to develop new technical/job skills, learn more about other disciplines and how to work with people who have different team player styles and cultural backgrounds.

  6. Single Point of Contact. The cross-functional team promotes more effective cross-functional teamwork by identifying one place to go for information and decisions about a project or customer.

On the face of it cross-functional teamwork looks like a great idea and easy one to implement. Simply get together a group of people from different parts of the organization who have something to contribute about the subject and good things will happen. There is something so logical about identifying a problem and then asking eight or ten people with a variety of backgrounds, experiences and opinions to share their ideas and develop a plan of action. While it sounds good in theory, like many good theories about group behavior, when it gets tested in the field, barriers to success emerge.

While the leader plays an important role on any team, leadership of a cross-functional team is both more complex and more difficult. By definition, the team is dealing with a complex subject and diverse group of team members. The team leader has to have the technical background to understand both the subject and the contributions made by people from a wide variety of backgrounds. The team leader must also have the people management skills to facilitate the interactions of a group of people either with little experience or some negative experiences in working together.

My research indicates that the most significant leadership requirements for a cross-functional team include:

  • A working knowledge of the technical issues being addressed by the team.
  • Experience and skills in facilitating group process issues such as member participation, conflict resolution and consensus building.
  • An ability to work with little, no or unclear authority.
  • A willingness and the relevant skills to develop and manage on-going relationships with key stakeholders in other parts of the organization.
  • The know-how to help the team establish a mission and set goals and objectives.
  • The knowledge and assertiveness to obtain the necessary resources for the team.
  • A willingness to change and adapt as conditions change and the needs of the team evolve,
  • A sense of humor.

One of the most persistent problems for cross-functional teams is their lack of empowerment. They need the authority to make decisions and implement them. A related obstacle is the lack of clarity about just how empowered the team is to act. The confusion about the team's authority leads to a lack of consistency. Some teams, usually on the strength of the leader's skills, simply will assume they have the requisite authority and act in an empowered fashion. These cross-functional teams operate on the old axiom of "it's easier to get forgiveness than permission." Other cross-functional teams with a more conservative leadership feel the need to seek approval for every key decision and, in some cases, will actually send up trial balloons prior to even making a recommendation. For organizations using cross-functional teams there are two points to keep in mind:

  • Team leaders need to clarify their team's authority to decide key issues.
  • Senior management and other sponsors of cross-functional teams need to think through and clarify the level of team empowerment they want.

Much of my work with cross-functional teams indicates a lack of a clear vision of either where they want to be or what they want to accomplish. Many teams have action items, due dates, PERT charts and other short-term planning tools but often there is no sense of the future. Members of the team seem to be clear about what pieces they have to deliver but little sense of where their piece fits in. As a result, team members are committed only to making sure their deliverables are accomplished. They care little for the work of the total project and to the need to pitch in to make it work.

Keys to successful goal-setting are:

  • Goals must be clear. They must clearly state the performance outcome that is desired. You are looking for outcomes such as "reduce cycle time by 1O days," or "reduce tool costs by 20%."

  • Goals should be based on a problem definition. Some front-end work needs to done on the problem or opportunity prior to the hand-off to the team. The team then takes this broad charter and translates it into specific goals.

  • Team goals must be integrated into department goals. The goals developed by the team must be included in the goals of the functional departments represented on the team. This reinforces the team's goals and makes the department a partner in the team process.

If this thrust toward the proliferation of cross-functional teams is to be successful, there must be an emphasis on what is called boundary management. Boundary management is the process by which a team manages its "borders" and the information and resource flow with its key stakeholders. The flow may be vertical(senior management) or horizontal(functional departments, support groups). As you might suspect, the flow is interactive in the sense that it concerns how the team both sends and receives information or resources to and from these stakeholders. Several recent studies indicate that effective boundary management can make a real difference in team success. However, obstacles do exist in most organizations. They include such factors as the existence of old stereotypes among stakeholders, real competition among departments and key people and lack of information about each other. Overcoming these obstacles and building effective stakeholder relationships involves preparing a plan which includes:

  • Identifying your key stakeholders.
  • Looking for commonalties with your stakeholders.
  • Communicating information about your team/learning more about their team.
  • Selecting boundary managers who can successfully handle the interfaces.
  • Identify potential barriers and ways to overcome them.
  • Be credible in all that you say and do.

A nagging issue and one that is likely to increase in intensity is giving team members credit for their performance on cross-functional teams. Since the functional department manager usually still has responsibility for each employee's appraisal, team members often complain that their work on teams does not get seriously considered and included in the evaluation of their performance. I just worked with a group of technical experts whose sole responsibility was to participate on different cross-functional teams. Their department manager rarely saw them perform on a team. The only way she could get a complete view of their performance was to obtain input from the cross-functional team leaders. As you look at your organization's performance appraisal process ask:

  • Is cross-functional team participation a factor in an employee's appraisal?
  • Are managers required or even encouraged to Incorporate feedback from leaders of cross-functional teams?

As more work is done with teams, organizations have to shift the emphasis of their rewards programs from individual to team awards. At the present time one important barrier to the success of cross-functional teams is that the focus of many awards programs is still on individual performance. While there will always be a need to recognize the individual who goes above and beyond, a good awards program must reward the collaborative efforts of teams. And we need to get away from the "star system" which rewards individuals who stand out from the crowd and begin to reward people who help the crowd perform better. In other words, even our individual awards must acknowledge people who are effective team players --- people who freely share their expertise, people who pitch in and help out when necessary, people who can effectively facilitate a meeting and people who challenge the team to do better. Take a look at your current rewards program:

  • Does it reward individuals who are effective team players?
  • Does it provide awards to teams that really demonstrate the value of collaborative efforts?

Another persistent barrier to effective cross-functional teamwork is the failure of people to work well together in groups. Despite the increased number of people participating in team sports, most people come to the workplace poorly prepared to function as a team player. Few people take courses in group dynamics and even fewer develop group process skills naturally. In contrast to functional teams, cross-functional teams are more susceptible to poor interpersonal relationships, conflicts among team members and a lack of trust and candor. Members bring to the team their ingrained work styles developed as a result of their associations with other similar people in their functional area. The key to overcoming this barrier is training in areas such as:

  • Understanding and working with different team player styles.
  • Developing positive team norms.
  • Conflict resolution techniques
  • Developing consensus decisions.

TEAM size
Many cross-functional teams violate one of the fundamental principles of effective teams: smaller is better. Just about everyone know intuitively what researchers have proven over and over again about the size of a team --- about four to six members, but certainly no more than ten members works best. And yet, cross-functional teams continue to try to operate with teams of 25, 35, and even 50 members. There seems to be this drive to involve as many people as possible as if, in some peculiar way, large membership is an indicator of successful teamwork. Some organizations are coming to grips with the barrier of large teams by:

  • Playing Hardball --- Simply Limiting Team Membership.
  • Using A Core Team To Make The Key Decisions.
  • Using Sub-Groups To Accomplish Most Of The Real work

There is very little a team can accomplish without the support of management, both senior management and the functional department managers. This is often the "killer" barrier because many of the other barriers can be overcome by team actions such as training, good leadership and communication. However, if key management stakeholders either do not cooperate or, worse, sabotage the team, there is little that can be done by the team. Effective boundary management can only go so far. What is management support? What does it look like? It comes in many forms but it almost always includes:

  • Providing Resources - Training, Budget, People, Equipment.
  • Verbal and Visible Actions - Talking and Walking Teamwork.
  • Recognition of Teams and Team Players.
  • Communicating Your Vision, Charter or Goal.
  • Breaking Down the Barriers - Old Paradigms, Old Procedures.
  • Modeling Teamwork - Being an Effective Team Yourself

This paper draws heavily on my recent book, Cross-Functional Teams.- Working With Allies, Enemies and Other Strangers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, Inc., 1994.

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