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Cross-functional teams are an essential part of the ongoing effort to develop innovative and agile solutions to the problems facing modern businesses. By leveraging the diverse range of skills and resources scattered across multiple departments, organizations can build these teams to address specific issues that affect their operations.

The structure and function of such teams do present some unique challenges, however. In order to create the best cross-functional teams possible, companies should carefully consider how they are formed and implemented.

Establish the Purpose

Cross-functional teamwork can come as a big change for many people. They may not be used to working with anyone from outside of their respective departments or they may feel uncomfortable in situations where there are no clear sources of authority. Given these unique characteristics, it’s important that team members have a clear understanding of why cross-functional teamwork is necessary in the first place.

If the reason for the team’s existence isn’t made clear from the beginning, it can be difficult to secure buy-in from team members or other departments within an organization. They may question the necessity of the team or withhold some of the resources it needs to thrive. By establishing why a cross-functional team is the best way of tackling a specific challenge, organizations can break down barriers and ensure that everyone involved with the team will be committed to its success.

Embrace Diversity

One of the greatest advantages of cross-functional teams is their ability to bring together people with different perspectives and approaches to problems. Rather than being an echo chamber of the same old ideas, cross-functional teams provide the opportunity for new ideas to emerge and develop into truly innovative solutions. Teams with diverse members, whether in terms of gender, race, culture, or sexual orientation, have been shown by researchers to process information more effectively and generate unique solutions to challenges.

Part of what makes diverse teams so effective is that they require people to step outside of their comfort zone and expose themselves to new opinions and ways of doing things. Since cross-functional teams are usually organized to provide a new perspective on a problem, diversity should be a key consideration because it will increase the likelihood that the team will generate unique ideas for how to achieve its goals.

Develop Shared Goals

Speaking of goals, it is absolutely vital for cross-functional teams to develop and establish a clear set of shared goals they hope to accomplish as a team. Since the members of these teams usually come from different departments within an organization, they often have conflicting agendas and priorities. If the team can’t agree on mutual goals, then the team will have difficulty collaborating and working toward solutions.

While the reasons for the team’s existence might be obvious to everyone, deciding upon the actual deliverables and specific outcomes can be a challenge. Team members should work together to identify and agree on clearly defined and measurable goals to guide the team’s work. Developing goals collaboratively has the benefit of ensuring that everyone gets to contribute their thoughts which increases both the quality of the goals as well as the team’s buy-in and commitment. Once the goals have been set, cross-functional teams will have laid a solid groundwork upon which future collaboration can rest.

Establish Clear Roles

Since cross-functional team members are pulled from multiple departments, they are often unclear about how they are expected to contribute to the team and their decision authority. In many cases, there are no direct lines of authority, leaving questions of managerial oversight very ambiguous. In order to collaborate effectively, team members need to know where they stand with one another and how they will work together. For instance, whose input needs to be collected before the team makes a decision? Who holds ultimate decision authority if there is no consensus? And what information needs to be shared with which team members?

By establishing clear roles, cross-functional teams can not only avoid confusion and frustration, but also head-off conflict before it has a chance to develop. If responsibilities are ambiguous, multiple people may end up doing the same work. In addition, team members are more likely to spend time worrying about what needs to be done and who is doing it rather than focusing on their own tasks. Clarifying roles and decision-making authority provides a sense of structure that makes collaboration and cooperation both easier and more effective.

Build Relationships

Cross-functional teams can come together for many reasons, but they must learn to work as a cohesive unit if they’re to be successful. That means building healthy relationships among team members is critical to whether or not a team achieves its goals. When team members don’t feel like they can trust one another to follow through on their commitments or engage in negative behaviors that undermine productivity, teams are unlikely to be successful even in the short term.

Team-building activities are a valuable strategy for strengthening relationships between team members, especially when the team first comes together. Periodic face-to-face meetings can help people to become more familiar with each other and scheduling the occasional non-work activity provides an opportunity for them to create the social bonds that facilitate more effective collaboration. This is especially important for cross-functional teamwork because the team is likely the only place where the members interact with one another.

Building successful cross-functional teams is a challenging but ultimately rewarding process. Their unique characteristics allow them to confront problems that are far beyond the scope and abilities of conventional teams. However, those same characteristics can create challenges that department and functional teams don’t often face. By making sure that cross-functional teams are set them up for sustainable, long-term success organizations can ensure these teams get off to the best start possible.