What makes a cross-functional team successful? It may sound cliché, but the best multi-functional teams have the ability to put their differences aside and unite toward a common goal.
This is easier said than done, particularly when a team consists of people from different departments, generations, or geographic regions. Research has found that more than half of all cross-functional teams fail to achieve their goals, in large part because team members from various departments are unable or unwilling to collaborate.
In the past year, we’ve heard far too many stories of the disastrous consequences that result from toxic teams. Instead of looking at where these companies went wrong, we wanted to highlight a few companies that seem to be getting it right.
Here are three cross-functional teams that succeeded in the past year and what we can learn from them.
US Food and Drug Administration
In February of 2018, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it would be revising its product review team structure to implement a more cross-functional model. The goal was to integrate a wider range of specialties into the regulatory process to promote the development of new therapies for serious diseases. In the past, the FDA took a more siloed approach to its regulatory programs. Subject matter experts operated independently, which not only introduced additional administrative complexity to the product review process, but also meant there was little communication between departments. In the case of severe and complex diseases, delayed approvals for new treatments could be extremely detrimental to patients.
In an effort to make the review process more nimble and patient-focused, the FDA has attempted to modernize its personnel into a more team-based approach. The new teams integrate experts from different disciplines and across different stages of a medical product’s lifecycle to promote the common goal of better public health. Cross-functional teams will also play an important role in developing science-based guidance documents for medical researchers that provide the FDA’s latest expectations and guidelines for clinical trials and effectiveness measurements.
The insurance and financial services giant has long been a trendsetter when it comes to cross-functional teams. In the 1950s, the company put together its first cross-functional teams by drawing people from various departments to study the impact that computers would have on the financial industry. This team helped Northwestern develop one of the country’s first information systems departments, which translated into a huge competitive advantage in an increasingly computer-driven market.
Cross-functional teams remain important to the company today. In recent years, these teams have been heavily design focused, bringing together designers, financial planners, and technical leaders to engage in ideation workshops to improve the user experience for customers. A variety of cross-functional exercises also focuses on building empathy and collaboration, which leads to better product design for customers and more buy-in from employees.
As the largest seller of used cars in the US, CarMax has faced the twin challenges of digital disruption and rapidly shifting customer expectations. In order to deliver a quality customer experience, the company adopted an agile philosophy that leans heavily upon cross-functional teams. As CarMax CIO Shamim Mohammad explains, “(O)ur digital transformation isn’t solely driven by IT, or marketing, or product. It’s a CarMax strategy that requires all parts of the business to work together to deliver a simple and seamless customer experience. It’s been crucial to break down the silos between departments to drive customer-centric innovation and business results.”
But this cross-functional philosophy doesn’t just apply to the company’s product teams. Many CarMax store locations are classified as “cross-functional stores,” in which employees are expected to have a holistic understanding of the business. Associates are trained to perform multiple functions, with high-potential employees receiving “fast-track” development to prepare them to manage a cross-functional workplace.
What Sets Top-Performing Teams Apart?
The success of these three teams is no accident. OnPoint Consulting has worked with some of the world’s top cross-functional organizations, including GE, Bayer Healthcare, ASML, Merck, and many others where employees are dispersed across divisions and geographic areas. In our own experience and research, we’ve identified several factors that distinguish successful cross-functional teams, including:
- Shared goals
- Clear roles and decision authority
- Leaders who are effective influencers
- Leaders who are effective change agents
Training can help cross-functional team leaders build trust, enhance collaboration, and empower their teams to be more productive.