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Cross Functional Teams in Reality

You can’t work any place or at any level without a mandate to work with folks outside your primary discipline. We can all agree that this is essential, a great advance, produces good results and just makes common sense. But we can also agree that it is great in theory and very tough in reality to pull off.

In order for cross functional teams to work well these conditions need to be in place:

  • Senior most leaders must be fully aligned and speak with one voice, one direction. Goals, measures, communication and directives must be in lock-step so that multiple teams who report into different bosses are in sync.
  • Project or team leaders must have a productive and collaborative relationship. At the ground level, those who have primary responsibility for day to day activities of the teams must be joined at the hip and constantly monitoring and rejiggering the work.
  • Rewards, compensation and other measures must be the same for all staff. Shared goals across teams must be equally weighted and valued. When it is time for reviews, everyone on the project must be evaluated and rewarded similarly.
  • The organization writ large needs to minimize silos and territories in favor of more open and fluid ways of working together. This goes back to the three points above. The senior leadership team must visibly function collaboratively, project leaders must focus on the bigger picture and rewards need to be equally weighted.

Raise your hand if your organization has these conditions present. I think I see 3 hands. Now, when I challenge a CEO on this issue he will instantly push back to extol the virtues and evidence of his wonderfully collaborative work environment. I hear the 2 success stories in great detail. When I press on and describe the 3 current projects that are falling horribly behind because the senior team is bickering in plain sight, the CEO ends the discussion abruptly by declaring, “I’m taking care of that.” Which, of course, he isn’t and everyone in the company knows it.

So, what can you do in reality?

First, assume that these things will probably not change: the senior leadership dissension and the compensation structure. The dynamics on the executive team are complicated and often not pretty. There is competition and arrogance aplenty. In that atmosphere it is tough to get two leaders to sublimate their individual ego needs for the greater good. Not to mention that there can be significant animosity between these people and it plays out everyday in the organization. Ultimately this is the responsibility of the CEO (who may be one of the difficult players in the story). So the safe bet is: this is your reality so figure out how to deal with it.

In terms of rewards and compensation, few companies have systems that encourage teamwork. Although HR has tried lots of new ideas in the past 10-20 years, the core of most programs is individual and departmental success with a smattering of project or corporate metrics (excluding the senior team). This is a large organizational issue that is way above your pay grade. Don’t put energy into this.

Second, strong partnerships with your colleagues in other departments is something you have a lot of control over. If there are loads of great cross-discipline relationships around the company then that will impact the culture. So invest in your internal network of cross functional colleagues.

Here are things you can do in reality.

  • Take time to get to know your key collaborators. This can be both personally and professionally. You don’t have to become best friends but the more you know about how the kids are doing and how the last vacation was too short, the more you start to care about the person. The more you know and care about the person, the more you want him/her to have a good day too. On the professional side, ask a zillion questions so you can learn as much as possible about his/her skills and challenges. Conversely, share things about your personal and professional life too.
  • Do not presume to be an expert at your colleague’s function. Let me repeat that: do NOT. You went to school and had jobs in your field and you’re probably great at it. When your peer behaves as if they conquered not only their own discipline but yours as well, it makes you crazy. In my experience, there isn’t anyone in the organization who does not fashion themselves as a marketing whiz. Sales people, operations folks, finance…all can tell the marketing person exactly what needs to be done. After all, the last three times they walked into a supermarket they went right by the company’s product because it wasn’t packaged or placed prominently enough. Don’t you marketing people understand that sales will skyrocket when you get the product at the front of the aisle?
  • There is a difference between productive cross functional collaboration and stepping on toes. Related to the last point, with a foundation of professional respect for your partner’s discipline and knowledge, the key is to work on fitting the pieces together. Don’t independently decide that the expert doesn’t know what s/he is doing or that your idea is better without an open discussion of different points of view. It is great to hash out the merits of a new product with the IT and operations folks to get a clear picture of implementation and then have the finance person assess the ultimate return for the effort. It’s not so great when the finance person modifies the new product without any market intelligence just to boost the revenues and then passes it off to the IT team who have had no input into what is possible.
  • Together focus on asking for forgiveness down the road rather than waiting for permission. If the two of you agree on a good course of action but have conflicting views from on high, take a calculated risk about moving forward anyway. You might want to be sure that there is some executive sponsorship somewhere just in case things go badly. But don’t endlessly delay moving forward on high value projects just because the senior leaders are stuck.

The reality of cross functional teams is that they are a great idea on paper and most of them struggle to produce what is expected of them. They are a web of complicated relationships at multiple levels of an organization. Add to that trying to find common ground and common language to speak from when each function has it’s own idiosyncrasies. It is, however, possible to be highly successful and to love the experience. The key is relationship building at the peer-to-peer level.

Personally, I am deeply committed to cross functional teams. I believe this is what organizations and people and products and services need. “Some say that I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.”


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