How to lead cross-functional teams when you’re not the boss

And motivate them to pursue your projects

When I came into the organization, I had a set list of projects and responsibilities directly tied to my discipline, marketing. And, over time things changed organically, perhaps it was a response to adapt to the changing media landscape, or to best accommodate multiple disciplines into one area.

Over the last couple of years I started creating cross-functional teams. It wasn’t a considerate effort. It happened by chance.

We came together because I verbalized an idea to fix a problem that we knew needed attention but no one had done anything about it.

I organized working groups to explore solutions. These teams are comprised of professionals with different set of skills, representing their departments, reporting to different senior leadership. The titles range from managers to VPs. The larger teams have a wider variety of titles, designers and coordinators included. The smaller ones tend to be a combination of decision-makers from various their departments.

Since I started developing them I carved myself in the space of multi-disciplinary projects. Frankly, I don’t know how to see projects as fitting within a single discipline anymore.

This hybrid, cross-functional, model has strengthened bonds across departments, provided better perspectives on overlapping issues, given valuable insight into the inter-connectivity and flow of information, and solidified mutual respect and trust on our skills and responsibilities.

This is what I’ve learned from running cross-functional teams:

Define roles

It is essential to come in with an understanding that the people you’ll be working with already have full-time jobs. They are doing this because they believe in your vision, someone appointed you as a team leader, or somehow you have a budget to use and need a team to get things done. In all of those options, you face the same challenge: to get their attention, their energy, their insights and time to move your project forward.

The beauty of cross-disciplinary teams is that it already has defined areas of expertise where they can use their strengths.

Large teams

In large teams there may be multiple people from the same department. To avoid overlapping or duplication of work, we defined set roles for each and identified their areas of responsibility. We outlined the roles in a governance document.

A governance document sets the accountability and responsibility for each of them. It provides a piece of mind to senior leadership, it provides further solidification of your team, and it is shared with everyone in the team at the start of the project. It can go through a series of revisions and is updated as the team evolves. Having clear defined roles will allow you to hold accountable those who participate in your future meetings.

Small-Mid size teams

For smaller working teams, such document may not be necessary, but perhaps verbal clarification for “who does what” is the easiest way to ensure that everyone understands how they are contributing to your project.

I usually prepare a roadmap with tasks and review points that spread over a period of months, and beside each task, there is one team lead listed. At times, there are two contributors. This is a common practice in project management, but having fallen into cross-functional teams as a happenstance, we don’t usually start with a project manager on board, so we gather our tasks together and create documents as we go along.

Small teams

There’s one team where we don’t have a governance document or have spoken about how we contribute to the project because we represent each area of the project. There aren’t two product designers or two sales operations. There is one of each, and because of that we don’t have defined roles in our mini-team, each of us is the single representative of our departments and sectors, and we are responsible for connecting with other team members in our departments when necessary.

Give it a name

We develop stronger relationships when we are part of a community that shares a name. Even if it’s a temporary name, it’s worth coming together to name it. If people are too busy or don’t care for the name at first, then, give it a name and see how people react to it.

It may be something like “growth hacking team,” or “lead generation and platform registration team,” “dot com team,” or “project A.” Make sure there is something to the name that resonates with the team and the type of work you’ll be developing.

When the project launches or the team gets the funding it requires, then you can change the name to something that adheres to the company’s naming standards.

Set the pace

I believe that momentum can energetically motivate your team and can be felt across your organization. If you have a newly formed team who believe in a clear goal for your project or idea, then build on that initial momentum.

In the first meeting ask everyone what would be a good pace for the meetings: every week? every two weeks? every three weeks? every month? If they don’t know or there isn’t an apparent pace. Pick one, and let them know that as a group you’ll test it out, and if it doesn’t work it can change.

When there’s no purpose to have a meeting because things are running smoothly or slowly, send an update of what has been accomplished to date since the last meeting and what you, as a team, are looking to accomplish in the coming weeks.

If your team is not a small, hands-on working team, and it’s a larger one with multiple people that have different levels of involvement and constraints (like time zones). Then be honest about the time constraints and let them know that meetings will only take place in the morning or afternoon (depending on where you are). Alternatively, discuss whether it would work best to have smaller meetings with the key players on certain aspects of the project and then have everyone reconvene in the larger group meetings with less frequency.

Being flexible to accommodate different needs is crucial. Act as the facilitator when setting up the cadence for meetings.

Shine light on their responsibility

One of the biggest challenges is maintaining your team accountable and responsible for their roles while they already have full-time roles.

Usually, before we have a recurring meeting I call, email or send an instant message one-on-one with the team members that are presenting or had assigned tasks to make sure they are ready, and let them shine when it comes to the meeting.

Having good rapport with your team members will make the difference.

Often, when we are tackling a problem with other departments that we need help from, we carbon copy our team members (all from different departments). If the first person pursuing the problem does not get a satisfactory response, another project team member jumps in and speaks providing the perspective from the team he represents, if that doesn’t work, then another project team member shares her insight on how it affects his or her department. Meanwhile, the main “blocker,” the person unwilling to collaborate who is not in the cross-functional team, starts seeing the picture of how he is blocking not just one department but multiple from operating efficiently or pursuing their goals.

The behind-the-scenes of teamwork

The behind-the-scenes part of this orchestration is that we are in group chat or emailing back and forth. Communication sometimes is one-to-one, sometimes we join a group thread, and we are in constant discourse about when to jump into a conversation or step away to let someone from our cross-functional team step in.

Set expectations

Honesty and transparent communication are essential particularly when you have a team that is committed to making change in the organization.

If this is new to you and you are figuring out how to move things along with the new team, or create a schedule, or next steps, then say it. You’ll work to achieve small wins over a period of time until you have a proper budget or clear direction from senior leadership.

In the meantime, you are not paying or evaluating your cross-functional team for their contributions, you are not their immediate boss, and you cannot dictate how they use and allocate their time, but you happen to be the leader driving change. More than ever you need to be attentive to their input. And when you get funding or visibility, you already will have the team in place.

Exposing my vulnerabilities let them see that I’m not the “fixed-structure” leader, and rather one that adapts to change and remains nimble as new happenings occur.

Celebrate small wins

We high-five when we see each other in the coffee area, or email each other sharing compliments. To me, it feels as if we were part of a unique club that nobody else understands but us. We have an unwavering sense of trust and respect for each of our skills and what we contribute to our project, and because of it celebrating small wins doesn’t come as planned. It happens naturally.

In the roadmap we also keep track of the long-term goals we are looking to win along with the upcoming budgeting cycles. We maintain a record the dates we need to be aware of, our deadlines and other relevant company events or launches. That way we can ask the right questions leading to it and showcase our wins to senior leadership.

Ready to build cross-functional teams?

Change can happen even when it starts small. Be honest, empathic and carry your ideas with you wherever you go.

You are working in the place you chose, with people you trust, and even if you are new or think it will take a long time to create lasting change:

Think differently, ask laterally.

Chances are there are people in other departments who believe in you and will be willing to help you move your project forward.

When you disrupt existing structures and build teams to create new paths and repair existing ones, everyone including disbelievers will start paying attention.

No one is an island, entire of itself. Start small.


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