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Success Strategies For Cross-Functional Teams: Management's Role


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

80th Annual International Conference Proceedings - 1995 - Anaheim, California

The Issue. Look around at the most successful organizations today and you find quality at the core of their corporate goals and teamwork as the principle strategy for achieving the goal. As with most paradigm shifts we rarely recognize the change while we are living through it and, as a result, fail to successfully manage the ransition. The purpose of this paper is to suggest some ways to create a team-based organization which will successfully support both the quality goals and the vechicle of cross-functional teamwork.

A quiet movement is working its way across organizations as cross-functional teams are being formed to meet the demands of customers for better quality, lower cost, and improved service.

  • Insurance companies are organizing their policyholder services employees into multi-skilled teams able to better service all customers in a region or line of business.
  • In the pharmaceutical industry account management teams formed around major customers replacing a product-driven strategy with a customer-focused strategy.
  • In highly competitive service industries such as hotels and rental cars teams of front-line service workers are being teamed with customers to come up with solutions to some of the customers' biggest problems.
  • In many production operations purchasing professionals are teaming up with design engineers, suppliers, customers and others to bring new products to the market faster and at a lower cost.

The Challenge. While we seem to have accepted teamwork as a necessary strategy for success, the challenge now is how to make it work. Typically, the response is "let's give everyone some training in teamwork skills." While I believe training is important and necessary, it is not sufficient to make the successful shift to a team-based organization. What is even more troubling is the emphasis on training has detracted from a focus on the other critical aspects of organization change. I believe we already know how to train employees in team effectiveness and yet we keep trying to perfect team training techniques. In a recent major examination of work teams in America, Wilson Learning Corporation found that almost 80 percent of the respondents named organizational barriers(Including the entire infrastructure) as the major roadblock to effective teamwork(Leimbach, 1992).

Since we already know how to teach people to use the consensus method in team decision-making, why do we keep developing more survival exercises? We have been lost on the moon, in the desert, at sea, and in at least a dozen other places. Do we still need more? We already have many five, six and seven-step problem-solving models for teams. Why are we spending time developing variations on these same models? There are several very fine assessment tools for measuring team effectiveness. Do we really need another one? My point is obvious: we seem to be spending more time on doing what we already do well---the training and development of teams--- and thus adding little value to organizations struggling with the challenge of imbedding teamwork into their organizational fiber.

Creating A Team-Based Organization
Talk the Talk. Organizations which want to succeed as a team-based organization must continually say the right words. The leadership of the firm must send out a clear and consistent message that cross-functional teamwork is our strategy for achieving world-class quality. The message must first be contained in all written presentations. If you do not have a vision, values or mission statement then the first step is to create such a statement in concert with the leadership team. The vision should be a statement of your "desired" or "preferred" future as opposed to your predicted future. A vision is more than idea, it is a force, a picture that provides a future focus for the organization. Or as one of my clients put it simply: "it's where we want to be." Here is how some organizations have stated the team aspects of their vision:

  • "Quality is our first priority and teamwork is our standard in all aspects of what we do."
  • "Our goal is to establish a climate of openness, mutual respect and teamwork."
  • "We seek teamwork throughout the organization...participative goal-setting...and decision-making a the lowest level."

With a clear message in hand the leadership of the organization should use every opportunity to pound it home. At every company seminar, leadership meeting, awards dinner or other similar occasion, the cross-functional teamwork charge should be sounded. Company publications should also be used to promote the theme of teamwork. Stories in the annual report, status reports, in-house newspapers and newsletters as well as corporate magazines should regularly carry stories of the benefits of teamwork and the valuable contributions of team players.

Repetition is important because employees are used to quickly changing corporate themes often referred to as the " topic du jour" or" flavor of the month." As a result employees take the cynical view that if they do nothing and just wait, a new "priority" will emerge to replace the current fad. I work with managers who ask impatiently, "how many times do I have to make my teamwork speech?" And I always reply, "as often as possible and as many times as I ask you."

Walk the Talk. To those cynics who say "talk is cheap," I say you are correct but it is where we start. It is important to say the right words but it is not enough. The leadership team of the organization must live by the words. They must act and work like a team. They must be a model of cross-functional teamwork that the rest of the organization looks to for guidance. It is by now an axiom that the most powerful motivator of employee behavior is the behavior of their boss. Most top management teams and many middle management teams are cross-functional. As a result, they are in a perfect position to demonstrate the value of cross-functional teamwork that sends a powerful message to others in the organization.

On my first visit to the offices of a new client I noticed that there was a framed copy of the vision statement in every office and conference room. I remarked that this was impressive display of the importance of the statement. To which the my client contact responded, "and the CEO measures every decision for its consistency with the vision." Later, I wondered how he, as a mid-level manager, was so sure of this since he rarely interacted with the CEO. The point: he probably did not know it for sure, but he believed it! And you can be sure he checked every one of his actions for their support of the company's vision.

One of my current clients is trying to install teamwork as strategy in their organization. They have decided that people do not know how to be team players and, therefore, we are conducting a course in teamwork for everyone in the division. However, the first group to be trained are the vice-president and her direct reports. The message is going out to the rest of the organization that this is important and we need to learn these skills as well. Incidentally, a key unit of the course for the top team is a focus on what they can do personally and as a team to create a team-based culture.

By contrast, some years ago, in another organization I was conducted a team building course for a director-level group. When I would urge them to work together across department lines they would respond, "you better tell our bosses first." They went on to tell horror stories of directions from their superiors not to work with this group, to hold up work needed by another or to withhold information from someone else. The message was clear: we talk cross-functional teamwork, but we don't live it.

Recognize and Reward. We need to start with the basic premise that people will exhibit the behaviors that are rewarded and recognized. The formal awards program in the organization should allow teams to win an award. In addition, the criteria for individual awards should include team player behaviors. Chapter 9 includes a detailed description of a number of awards programs for cross-functional teamwork. Our purpose here is simply to underscore the need for management to get behind efforts to create and manage formal and informal efforts to recognize successful cross-functional teamwork.

Many firms are moving to awards that go only to teams---that is, no one wins unless the team wins. This type of awards program encourages people to pitch in and help the team succeed. The keys to a successful team awards program begins with allowing team members to select their own rewards as long as they stay within a budgetary limit, which explains the popularity of catalogue programs. While everyone says they want money as a reward, studies continually show that employees want recognition for their contribution to the company. Non-cash rewards provide recognition from management and peers. And perhaps more important, the recognition factor lasts long after the money has been spent. In one company I work with, which provides cash awards, people also receive a plaque which serves as a permanent reminder of their success.

One final but significant factor in team awards is the selection process. I strongly recommend a peer review process which is controlled by non-management employees. Peer review means that employees develop the criteria, review the awards proposals, make the decisions and present the awards. One company includes several management people on the committee to ensure organizational perspective. They also rotate committee membership so that all employees learn how the program works in practice. For more on rewards for cross-functional teamwork, see Parker(December 1994).

Focus on Performance. It is important that the performance appraisal, compensation and promotion policies of the company support the goal of teamwork as a business strategy. I believe we should begin with the appraisal process because it is a regularly scheduled activity which tells employees how their performance is measuring up. Therefore, it is extremely important that team player behaviors be included prominently among the factors which are rated. Many companies are already including team characteristics in their appraisal forms. Here are some examples from forms I have collected:

  • understands and supports the goals of the team.
  • consults with others and shares information.
  • negotiates differences effectively.
  • constructively challenges prevailing points of view.
  • open to unsolicited ideas and opinions.
  • friendly and approachable in working with others.

See Parker(June 1994)) for a discussion of performance appraisal.

Promotion is a specific and visible reward for performance. It is both a way of rewarding team players and sending a message to others in the organization that teamwork is our goal and team players are valued. As one manager said to me, "we promote team players and we make it clear that profit-goal achievement alone will not lead to a promotion." However, to be really effective, the promotion must be made public in a substantive manner. The reasons for the promotion must be made clear and specific. When a person is promoted because he or she is both technically competent and an effective team player, the accomplishments in both areas should be highlighted. A carefully worded promotional announcement makes it clear that getting ahead in the organization requires a combination of technical and teamwork skills.

Here is an example of a short announcement:
Donna Jamieson
Promoted to Project Director
Donna Jamieson has been promoted to project director in recognition of her creativity as a systems developer on PBAT, YAMS and ORRIS. She continues to develop her technical skills via in-company workshops and external seminars and she recently completed course requirements for an M.S. degree in computer science from S.U. As co-chair of the user interface teams and a member of the BIRKS Task Force, Donna has shown herself to be someone who can be depended upon to do her homework, to pitch in when other people need help, and make sure everyone gets a change to participate in team decisions. She is honest, ethical, and willing to speak her mind on important organizational issues. Donna contributes technical excellence as well as positive team spirit to our organization(Parker, 1990, p. 139).

Be a Story Teller. It is important that the organization develop a culture that values teamwork and team players. The culture is composed of a series of norms, stories and organizational myths which enhance and shape the behavior of employees. All of these manifestations of the culture are part of the informal systems of the organization. Stories give people a flavor of the company---they tell people what type of behavior is valued. When these stories are told and retold and subsequently embellished they become myths and the people in the stories become legends. Ultimately they may translate into specific behavioral expectations which we call norms. Norms are simply the day-to-day informal guidelines which tell employee what is acceptable behavior. For example, in the course of an organizational diagnosis, I was told, "you should have been there when Deborah told the vice-president his marketing plan was all wet." This was an organizational story that was enhanced to the point of being a myth. In fact Deborah did not say the plan was "all wet." She just suggested some alternatives that were, in turn, accepted by the vice-president. The point was that no one had ever had the courage to challenge the ideas of an upper management person. However, the story served to establish a new team player norm that disagreement is acceptable.

What do you make of this myth which is told about a legendary figure in the history of the company? "He once drove through a blinding snowstorm to make delivery to a customer." On the surface this looks like a story about obsessive commitment to serve the customer. While it is clearly a service story, it also promotes individual heroics, rather than team success. It tells people that if you want to get ahead, look for opportunities to stand out from the crowd.

On the other hand, another story in a similar vein seems to promote the values of team play over individual effort. In this example, a cross-functional new product team composed of highly educated professionals worked all night loading trucks with product to meet a test-market deadline. People in the company enjoyed telling the story of these well-dressed MBAs who got their hands dirty doing what was necessary to meet their team objective.

Understanding the importance of positive cross-functional teamwork stories encourages leaders to use every opportunity to tell and re-tell these stories. These stories have the effect of making the vision and values statements come alive for people in the organization. They put life into the words and meaning into the actions of the company's heroes and heroines. Ultimately, the stories get folded into the daily life of the organization and eventually become the norms which shape and guide work team behavior.

Provide Resources. Teams cannot swim alone. They need resources to survive and thrive. Resources can mean many things.

Space. There is no substitute for good, well equipped meeting rooms. Let's face it. As much as we hate meetings, teams do much of their work in meetings. The rooms should have good, basic meeting room equipment such as flip charts or whiteboards, overhead projectors and video tape players. And the allocation of the space should be well-managed. In one organization the administration of the meeting rooms is so ineffective, many teams have given up and simply use tables in the company cafeteria.

Technology. There are many new methods of electronic communication available today which can enhance the effectiveness of teams. And many of these methods can improve communication and often decrease a team's dependence on face-to-face meetings. Electronic mail, local area networks, voice mail, FAX, conference calls, teleconferencing and video teleconferencing are different methods of team communication that increase the effectiveness of a team.

Training. We end where we began. While training is will not change a organizational culture it can support and facilitate the change process. Training can do two important things to help create a team-based organization. First, training provides people with the skills and knowledge to help them be successful and, second, it sends a message that teamwork is important, in fact, so important that we are investing in programs to up-grade the effectiveness of teams. Several types of training are necessary. People need to learn how be a team player, teams need to learn what constitutes an effective cross-functional team, and team leaders need to learn basic leadership skills such as planning and facilitating meetings, decision-making, problem-solving, resolving conflict and communications. See Parker and Kropp(1992 & 1994) for descriptions of team building exercises.

Creating Successful Cross-Functional Teamwork
We begin with the fundamental premise that teams are a critical factor in a successful business strategy. While is important to acknowledge the central role of cross-functional teams, it is not enough to simply set up teams, provide training and hope for the best. As team building consultant Jim Shonk says, "where organizations see teams as a way of addressing critical business issues, they find time for and support teamwork. Sometimes organizations have to be in crisis before they perceive a need to do something different. To be hoped is that more and more organizations will ask, `how can we get better?'"(Shonk, 1992, p. 156).

Successful implementation of a team-based strategy requires a commitment to say the right words---that is, teamwork and team players are critical to our success---and to drive that message home as often as possible. In tandem with the words must come the actions which parallel the words and demonstrate that the leadership team of the organization is a living example of successful cross-functional teamwork.

Successful cross-functional teams and team players must be rewarded for their support of the organization's vision and values. And related to rewards is inclusion of team player behaviors in the company's performance appraisal system. Both team oriented awards and performance appraisals are tangible and visible support for teamwork as the vehicle for implementation of the corporate strategy.

The leaders of the organization must work to create a team-based culture by telling organizational stories which perpetuate the heroes and heroines of teamwork. As these stories become embedded in the fabric of the organization they translate into the daily norms which shape employee behavior in support of team play.

And finally, teams need resources of all types to increase their chances of success and as another bit of evidence that the organization is committed to teamwork as a serious business strategy. The Wilson Learning Corporation's study of teamwork concluded that the successful team-based organization " one is which top management is strongly committed to breaking down barriers, eliminating, where possible, internal competition for resources, and avoiding the singling out of individuals for personal recognition and achievement. The ... organization also provides a performance appraisal and compensation process that promotes interdependent achievement, but with individual accountability. The organization focuses not so much on individual achievement, but on individual contributions to group achievement"(Leimbach, 1992, p. 16).

This paper is based on the author's book, Cross-Functional Teams: Working With Allies, Enemies and Other Strangers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994.


  1. Leimbach, M. P., Meeting the Competitive Challenge. Eden Prairie, Minn.: Wilson Learning Corporation, 1992.
  2. Parker, G. M. Team Players and Teamwork: The New Competitive Business Strategy. San Francisco: Jossey- Bass, 1990.
  3. Parker, G. M., "Appraising Individuals in Cross-Functional Teams." R&D Innovator Vol. 3, No. 6 (June, 1994) 4-5,9.
  4. Parker, G. M., "Rewarding Cross-Functional Teamwork." R&D Innovator Vol 3, No. 12 (December 1994).
  5. Parker, G. M. and R. P. Kropp, Jr. 50 Activities for Team Building. Vol 1, Amherst, Mass.: HRD Press, 1992.
  6. Parker, G. M. and R. P. Kropp, Jr., 50 Activities for Team Building. Amherst, Mass.: HRD Press, 1994.
  7. Shonk, J. H. Team-Based Organizations. Homewood, ILL.: Business-One Irwin, 1992.

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