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Cross-functional teams – you’re doing it wrong

Cross-functional teams get all the rave right now. It’s yet another holy grail promising endless wealth, efficiency, and happiness to your company, employees, and clients. But chances are that your cross-functional teams are not functional at all. So how do you apply the principle of cross-functional teams in a way that… functions? 

As you probably know, a cross-functional team is a group of people with different functional expertise working toward a common goal. Instead of big monotype teams (e.g. marketing, engineering, design, etc.) and rigid layers of bureaucracy, the people are divided into smaller teams that work on a specific project. 

Sounds simple? All great ideas do. 

But studies show that around 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional. They don’t stay in the budget or schedule, stick to the specifications, meet customer expectations, or the company’s goals. 

It’s not me, it’s you – cross-functionality is great

In principle, cross-functionality is great. Interdisciplinarity, i.e. combining different fields is a breeding ground for innovation and creativity. It provokes a synthesis of ideas, boosts problem-solving, and helps develop a T-shaped skillset for the teammates. This means the ability to collaborate with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one’s own. 

All in all, letting experts from different fields work closely together brings the most innovative results AND helps the teams’ professional development and talent flourish. 

In theory. But why does that not reflect on real life? 

The foundation of cross-functionality is ownership 

Cross-functional teams mostly fail because they lack a clear goal, governance, guidance, and accountability. This boils down to taking ownership of the project, careful planning, and focusing on delivery. 

The team members are not to blame – either the company lacks a systemic approach altogether or has already hired the wrong people. You should validate a person’s ability to take initiative and responsibility early on.

Many people prefer the baby-sitting mentality of horizontally layered teams. Of course, this is a recipe for common problems like unnecessary interfacing, pointing fingers, “not my job” excuses, etc. 

On the other hand, it’s simple to suffocate initiative if the teams don’t have genuine independence and ability to execute their plan without unnecessary coordination. 

So for your cross-functional teams to function, it’s paramount to have the people who want to take ownership AND provide them the conditions to execute themselves and hit their target. 

READ MORE: How to hire the best Product Engineers?

How to set up a cross-functional team?

It depends on your current situation. Are you a big corporation or an early-stage startup? 

As a big corporation, try setting up pilot teams with clear KPIs, and autonomy. Get them a coach or a mentor who will be there to help them and provide guidance. At the end of the day, it’s all about changing the mindset of your employees and the company as a whole. Be mindful of your challenges and adapt as you go. 

As an early-stage startup, we suggest cultivating a cross-functional mindset from day one. This way there is no dependency yet and you can build your processes and your team with a clear goal in mind. 

Either way, if you’re in doubt, don’t throw it out – seek guidance. We’re happy to share our thoughts and experience on cross-functional teams (see contact below). 

Cross-functional teams done right

If cross-functional teams are done right, it can bring significant results, including: 

  • More innovation – we talked more about that in regards to interdisciplinarity and broadening the team’s skillset. All in all, it helps skyrocket your problem-solving process. 
  • Faster delivery – the less time is spent on communication and coordination, the faster things get done. There are also fewer communication errors since relevant people are basically around the same table and are also the ones making all the decisions. They significantly reduce the production cycle time in new product development. 
  • Invested employees – if people take genuine ownership of a project, it’s also more rewarding for them (no it’s-not-my-job mentality). 

Today, you need (really functional!) cross-functional teams more than ever. They help you manage remote work in smaller, more flexible bite-size chunks, stay adaptable, and maximize your effort and resources. You can cut through the limbo of passing a project back and forth between separate departments – until the ball gets dropped somewhere and everyone keeps running with nothing to show for it. 

Producement has experience with building and managing 100% remote cross-functional teams. If you want to find out if remote development partners could be your next competitive advantage, get in touch with Keith and let’s chat.