Agile & Digital / Matrix Management / Virtual Teams

Cross functional teamwork on the rise?

With the increasing complexity of products and services and many companies taking a more “horizontal” approach to providing value for consumers, this leads to increased need for collaboration to cut across the traditional functional silos. Many agile practices are also based around the idea of autonomous cross functional teams.

On the other hand, according to Google trends, the term “cross functional team” doesn’t seem to be being searched more often and in fact was much more popular back in 2004/5. Maybe cross functional teams have now become so mainstream that we don’t even talk about them.

However, maybe we should talk about them more and not assume they are just the same as traditional teams.  it’s often the case that, even though these teams are the bedrock of collaboration in many organisations, our skills and our team development processes don’t necessarily reflect this.

Here are just 3 of the things that you might find different about working across functions.

Coordination is needed more often than deep collaboration. If you are working with colleagues from other functions, particularly if you are the only representative of your function on that team, then your colleagues may have little way to evaluate recommendations you make based on your own functional expertise. Whilst you may coordinate intensively with colleagues who have their own expertise and responsibility, you will tend to be individually accountable for the quality of your own deliverables.

When teams fail to understand this, it can lead to poor decision-making and unnecessary meetings where a group of people without technical expertise meet to evaluate your work and recommend next steps when they may not be qualified to do so.

Deep collaboration normally only happens when you are actively working on a common issue “live” in meetings, conference or video calls. This is important but only a small part of the time we spend working on common activity. The rest of the time we are delivering our own functional commitments which need to be coordinated but don’t require in-depth collaboration with other team members. It important that our “team” practices, particularly meetings and communication, reflect this. One of the most important realizations for a cross functional team is understanding when they don’t need to operate as a team.

Functional cultures are a factor. Some years ago we did some research in Europe using a cultural styles inventory. One of the interesting findings was that functional differences in Europe led to more differences than national cultures. It may be easier to get a group of European accountants to collaborate than cross functional team made up of people from finance, sales and marketing, manufacturing, R&D etc.

The functional silos are strong because they attract different types of people. They have studied different subjects, dedicate themselves to different areas of expertise and have different interests, aspirations and career paths. Having worked in various functions myself it is striking to realise how differently each group views the same business and what information and key metrics they pay attention to.

In the absence of a recognition of these differences we can fall into the trap of interpreting them as individual personality issues instead of different people doing different jobs.

Multiple team membership is the norm. Particularly if you are working in a support function such as HR, IT, legal etc. it is likely that you are a member of multiple cross functional teams. Research with 4,000 of our training program participants tells us that, on average, managerial and professional staff are on around 4 different teams at any one time.

Multiple team membership can, up to a point, be an advantage by bringing variety and learning but can also lead to inefficiencies and costs in “switching” from one team to another where team practices, norms and uses of technology may differ.

Traditional team development tends to ignore these factors and focus on the “more teamwork is good” approach. We have found that a more nuanced approach, taking into account the complexity and reality of cross functional teamwork can bring much better results.

If you would like to find out more, please get in touch

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