How to create cross-functional teams from the bottom-up

An organic change using design thinking

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

The room was quiet. People from agencies and large companies like Microsoft, Accenture, IBM were formulating their questions. I was at an OpenIDEO event listening to executives from Pfizer and Verizon talk about how they embraced design thinking as a system for creative problem-solving at their companies. I was listening attentively but nothing of what they were saying applied to me.

  1. They were the heads of their departments. I was not a department head and felt like I had no real chance to make a dent in the company.
  2. They had a budget allocated to experiments. I had no budget.
  3. They had well-structured teams dedicated to move their projects forward. I was one in a very small team with full plates.
  4. They had sponsors and leadership believing in their experiments. I had ideas and a collection of rejections.

I was feeling hopeless, and as if I was talking out loud I asked, “how do you change a company when you are the only one who may know about design thinking, has no budget, is not in a visible role and already has a full plate?” They looked at me and paused. I continued to fill in the silence, “do I repeatedly ask my boss about this idea I have and hope that something can be done?” Then a person sitting behind me answered and she advised me to start small.

She said, “start so small that they cannot even notice.”

The speakers chimed in on her idea. They added, “once you have a proof of concept or enough to show the impact it could have at scale, it will be easier to move your projects forward.”

So I took their advice.

This is what I learned:


Ask laterally

A couple of years ago I was working with an agency on a website redesign, and they had asked me for feedback on their design mockups. I felt uncomfortable about isolating the decision-making. I needed fresh eyes on the project. I did not want to rely solely on the opinions of the marketing and creative teams.

I reached out to people whom I would not have regularly interacted with at my company; I contacted talented product designers and interactive content designers to get their opinion.

At first, it felt as if I was doing a cold call within the company. A marketer contacting teams that were not located on the same floor, and some were not in the same office.

But, I found that they were happy to help and they gave me their advice and recommendations on the designs. We noticed that we did not communicate across departments much, so we decided to create a cross-departmental group to share best practices and gather second thoughts on the designs we were building for the company.

Takeaway: When you get stuck or feel unsure about something, know that there are more talented individuals around who can help. Reaching out to them will open the path to build stronger bonds within the company. Especially if you haven’t interacted with them in the past or they are part of the leadership team.

If they are part of the leadership team and they have time to listen, then you are getting guidance, and you may have piqued their curiosity enough for them to gain initial interest on what you are working on. If it is someone you’ve never had an interaction in the past, then you may be gaining a new ally in your project.

Talk about it

I remember talking about the issues the website redesign would solve before we had a budget. I talked about it with everyone in my department and outside of my department. My conversations would mostly happen when I would pass by someone’s desk or would go the coffee area and met with people that may contribute to the project.

Sometimes the conversations would dance around the thought that no clear owner or department was supervising the issue we wanted to solve. Though, having identified the problem and potential solutions made us realize how we could unofficially own it. This process helped me organically create a cross-departmental lead generation team, UX design team, and a data management team.

Takeaway: Talk your idea through with others, pay attention to their level of interest and gather feedback to make your idea robust. You will have engaged peers and potential team members on your cross-functional team.

When gathering feedback, log the responses including criticisms on a document. It will provide you insight on how to modify your project and adapt the positioning of your idea with internal stakeholders.

Paint the picture

We had a meeting with senior leadership in two days, and I needed visuals to support my idea. I drafted some sketches, designed a mock-up, I was completely dissatisfied with my efforts (not a designer), so I called up the creative team to put a clean touch to it.

The day came around and with excitement, I presented how my idea would look within the context they were already familiar with. Next thing I know we have a budget and guidance to build it.

Takeaway: Illustrating your concept and presenting it visually validates your idea and reasoning behind it. Prototyping when you don’t have a budget or resources means providing visual context, research and, at times, forecasting its financial impact. A well-sourced graph, image or custom design of how it would look can convey the idea at a glance.

If you have been fully invested in what you are building and this is something that you need to show to senior leadership, the visuals and the research will be secondary because your passion will be heard.

Build momentum

Momentum is like that strike of luck you have once in a while, and at first, you cannot verbalize how you got there, but you know you are living in it.

I had this idea to change the process on how inquiries are collected from the website. I had ideas of how it would work and started collecting allies, potential team members for the cross-functional team. I wrote documentation and presentations on it, wrote the names down of the new cross-functional team members on it, and shared it with everyone who would ask me about it.

Shortly after, senior leaders from departments unrelated to my project started asking if I could implement a similar process for the areas they supervised. I had not even implemented the one I had written about.

That’s when I knew I had picked up momentum.

Takeaway: Dan Ariely, after researching how people make decisions in his book Predictably Irrational, found that most people don’t know what they want unless they see it in context. Prepare supporting documentation on how your idea works and put it in context.

It makes it easier for others to understand your project and goal. Some of them may think about how your project fits within their priorities or how it may have an impact on their department. Carry the momentum to the next point of conversation of what needs to be achieved and how others can help you reach that goal.

Drive motivation

I was in a conference room in the London office with a few colleagues. We were trying to figure out how to position and explain a complex part of the company and make it easy for anyone to understand. We paced around the room, felt hopeless, wrote ideas down, scratched some, wrote more, we were about to give up, and what gave us the motivation to continue was our shared purpose.

Imagine if we could explain and show the things we do clearly to the people who need it most, and they can access it in real-time. We need to do this.

It took more than a day, but we were motivated to do it. Once we had a solid plan, we had reason to celebrate the small win (which was an enormous one to us).

Takeaway: Once you have a group of individuals who believe in your project, reiterate the purpose of the project and the impact it can have, the ownership they will have over it, and the importance of their role within it. In Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he explains that the science of motivation comes from combining purpose, autonomy, and mastery, and those three areas are what you are looking to reinforce in your team.

The beauty of building a multidisciplinary team organically is that the individuals working in it are already inspired to create change. They understand the issue, the project’s purpose, the impact they could make by using their skills, and by celebrating small wins, it reinforces their role within the project.

Balance responsibilities

I don’t have the time to work on that.

Sound familiar? I received and said a variation of that sentence when I was working on the website redesign. Nobody had time, and I didn’t have time to continue working on my daily responsibilities. It was a time where I felt uncomfortable; it felt as if I was hiding something and not doing my job well. I had to re-prioritize my day, needed help, and probably it was time to chat with my boss about the unbalance I had created not just for me but for a group of people too.

Takeaway: When you develop your idea into a project and build cross-functional teams from it, you will notice that something from your daily responsibilities will no longer have your full attention.

When that happens, speak to your boss on how you may be able to re-prioritize your responsibilities with the new project you are building. It may require training others about some of your daily tasks, delegating more to your staff, dedicating a day or time slot to review the ongoing responsibilities, or, examining how much of it can be automated. Consider your options and then test the new course of action.

Sustain change

After meeting with cross-departmental allies about the new project, we had our first meeting. In that first meeting it felt as if the project was going to crash and burn. Too many people were involved, and I could see some people zoned out or on their phones.

In the second meeting we had fewer people, but we were slightly more focused. By our third one, we had our core team defined. Later on we did not have to think about it. Our recurring meetings had become part of our ongoing responsibilities.

Takeaway: This is perhaps the most challenging part. The new project you formed was not a project in the past, and chances are that you and the rest of the people involve have other projects and responsibilities.

Setting up recurring meetings and check-ins with those involved in your team will be essential to maintaining the framework you created. If you have a budget, sponsors and a project manager, it will be easier to sustain the change because there will be a greater sense of accountability and a defined structure.

Otherwise, celebrating small wins, reinstating the project’s purpose and being honest about the fluidity of the environment will open the platform to listen to your team’s needs and causes of friction. It gives you an opportunity to learn how to best continue the collaboration.

Ready to be an agent of change?

Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

It is not easy to create change from the bottom-up. In some companies, it may feel like you are going against the grain or pursuing an idea that nobody wants to help you with. We did it because we were able to listen to one another despite our differences, departments, age, expertise and come together to build something extraordinary for our company.

We all have our areas of expertise, but you will only make huge leaps in your projects if you involve the people around you, do not hide away with your cliques and work in isolation.

Start so small that they cannot even notice.

The tiniest actions you make are the catalyst for change.

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