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Cross-functional teams have become a common feature of today’s increasingly diversified organizations. When put together well, these teams have the ability to deliver increased efficiency, faster decision-making, and better resource allocation. As with all types of matrix teams, however, cross-functional teams present a specific set of challenges that set them apart from traditional approaches to management.

Fortunately, a little foresight can help organizations to get the most out of their cross-functional teams. Here are five keys to take into consideration when building such a team:

1: Embrace Diversity

While the principle purpose of a cross-functional team is to draw upon the expertise and skill of employees from different departments, creating such a team presents a unique opportunity to bring together a wide range of perspectives and interests that could lead to truly innovative developments. Research has shown that diverse teams process information more effectively and develop more innovative solutions to challenges.

Putting together diverse teams can shake up the perspectives of employees who may not be used to stepping outside of their respective comfort zones, exposing them to new ideas and ways of doing things. This shift can potentially lead to significant benefits for organizations. A 2015 McKinsey report found that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity were “35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians,” and companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15 percent more likely to do the same.

2: Develop Shared Goals

Since cross-functional team members are drawn from different departments within an organization, they often have different agendas and pressure points to consider. In many cases, these conflicting goals could potentially hinder the team’s performance. Without the common ground of shared goals, team members may find it difficult to cooperate and collaborate with their teammates.

When a team comes together, then, it is critically important for all members to understand why they are there in the first place and what the team is supposed to accomplish. Working together in a collaborative process, team members should take the time to clarify their primary objectives and agree upon how they will measure progress towards those goals. Establishing a shared set of goals also helps to lay a groundwork for future collaboration and trust.

3: Promote Transparent Communication

Good communication is obviously important for all teams, but it is a critical factor in cross-functional team success. Many cross-functional teams must deal with the challenge of working remotely, which can make coordination and collaboration difficult. Expectations and standards for communication must be established early to avoid confusion and misunderstandings that could lead to unnecessary conflict.

Distance obstacles aside, differing departmental cultures can create impediments in communication and make it more difficult for team members to get the information they need when they need it. By establishing clear guidelines that facilitate transparent communication, teams can ensure everyone has what they need to do their jobs. Open and honest communication makes it easier for information to flow to relevant decision makers. It also helps to identify who needs to be included in discussions and who can simply be informed about decisions after the fact.

4: Build Trust and Accountability

Trust is a key aspect of any organization’s team-building efforts. If team members don’t feel like they can trust one another, they become less engaged, deflect responsibility, and, in some cases, engage in outright negative behaviors that further erode trust and productivity. Trust is especially difficult to build in cross-functional teams due to geographic distances, departmental differences, and the lack of clear lines of authority between members.

If cross-functional team members don’t trust their teammates to follow through on commitments or responsibilities, it will be almost impossible for the team to accomplish its goals. Since these teams draw members with specific skill sets from different departments, it might be impossible to compensate for someone who is hesitant to cooperate with others or commit to the team’s success.

Low levels of trust can be attributed to a lack of one or more of the essential elements of trust:

  • Credibility: How much team members believe what a person says.
  • Reliability: The extent to which team members “follow through” on commitments.
  • Intimacy: The extent to which team members empathize with other and feel they can confide in one another.
  • Self-Orientation: How much a team member thinks that someone has his/her best interests at heart.

Building trust in a cross-functional team takes time and effort. Some strategies for building trust include arranging face to face meetings (especially early in the team’s development), identifying common ground, partnering team members and rotating those pairings regularly, and celebrating wins as a group. Team members should also be encouraged to voice their concerns so they can be addressed constructively. Cultivating a climate in which people feel they can confide in others without fear of retribution or judgement goes a long way towards strengthening trust within a team.

5: Measure Performance

While it’s good to have goals and establish relationships, cross-functional teams need a way of knowing how well they’re delivering on those objectives. By identifying and referencing Key Performance Indicators (KPI), teams can track how much progress they’ve made towards their overarching goals, which helps to hold every member accountable for the team’s performance.

Teams can also gauge their success by conducting a variety of surveys. Employee surveys can provide a comprehensive view of how members view the team’s culture, performance, and processes. Taken as a whole, these surveys provide valuable benchmarks for the team’s overall health. If administered on a regular basis, new results can help the team determine if any progress has been made on whatever structural challenges may be holding it back from success.

Customer and client surveys are a valuable external source of data for teams looking to improve efficiencies and performance. If independent stakeholders are not satisfied with the team’s overall performance, the team can utilize this data to identify what processes or behaviors need to be improved. Ongoing evaluations like this can help to improve training and on-boarding programs to keep team members focused on achieving their shared goals.

Cross-functional team structure provides an exciting opportunity for organizations to better leverage their workforce to improve efficiencies and productivity. Although they present a number of unique challenges that require more attention than traditional teams, the benefits of these matrix teams are significant and well worth the investment of time and resources.