A Practical Guide to Cross-Functional Work

Alison Randel
Aug 28, 2017 · 11 min read

For virtually every organization, success requires both the integration of skills and transcending functional boundaries. Developing and commercializing a new product requires cooperation across sales, R&D, marketing, finance, and distribution. Creating a seamless user experience on a technology platform requires coordination and alignment across IT, communications, digital strategy, and marketing.

Almost nothing worth doing can be done in organizational isolation. Every leading company has developed ways to successfully work across functional lines and come together around shared outcomes.

With this need for cross-functional work being so commonplace, you’d think that we’d have broadly figured out how to make cross-functional teams work. Alas, that’s just not the case.

In a recent study it was found that nearly 75 percent of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional, with dysfunctional being defined as the inability to meet three of five criteria, including: staying on schedule, meeting customer expectations, and maintaining alignment with the company’s corporate goals. Those are some pretty big problems.

These problems are pervasive because the dysfunctions are caused by flaws in the way we approach cross-functional work, not by ill-intentioned or incompetent people.

Therefore, if we want high performing cross-functional teams, we need to set up the entire organizational system to enable that behavior.

What We Know Doesn’t Work

1. The functional matrix

The functional matrix is meant to increase information flow across functional silos, improve an organization’s ability to deliver integrated products/services to customers, and broaden the perspective of team members by having oversight from managers that sit in different contexts (e.g., marketing or IT).

While this structure is well-intentioned, it is designed around the flawed archetype of the leader as the thinker and communicator. This approach typically places individual leaders as the primary — and often only — channel for passing information across boundaries, rather than building the capacity for all members to contribute to that flow through the use of a structured meeting cadence and communication tools.

This practice also stifles collective learning, reduces direct contact between internal partners (which slows their ability to understand each other’s perspective/workflow/priorities, etc.), and creates a single point of failure.

The matrix also typically places two or more leaders as the ultimate approvers of projects and decisions. In a best case scenario these two leaders are fully aligned, and pushing decisions up is just an inefficient use of time that reinforces the belief that middle managers and below aren’t capable of making good choices (they typically are).

In a worst case scenario, these leaders are working toward different metrics and accountabilities, and the team is stuck in a swirl of bureaucracy, politics, and unclear priorities.

2. The cross-functional oversight committee

The oversight committee is another approach to cross-functional work. It is a group of people, usually folks deemed as experts in relevant fields, that are appointed to oversee the work, spending, and decisions of people doing the actual work.

There are a couple of benefits of the committee. First, it can create a clear outlet for tensions that arise throughout a project, and second, it promotes direct discussion between leaders about team objectives (rather than indirect disagreement through their respective team members).

The downside is that this structure promotes reliance on leadership to resolve disagreements and does nothing to clarify how conflicts should be dealt with at the team level.

These conditions create two major consequences. First, it creates bottlenecks, slowing down team progress. Second, it inhibits capacity building within the actual working team.

If teams are encouraged and enabled to always push decisions up to leaders, then leaders don’t have to effectively share information with those teams. This means that team members don’t have to understand the strategy they are supposed to be working toward or how to resolve tradeoffs in the effort to achieve that strategy.

3. A decision tree

Meant as a helpful tool, a decision tree outlines a predetermined path for a set of choices that the maker(s) believes will inevitably come up for cross-functional team members.

The idea is to outline a clear, logical path for determining how certain tasks should be prioritized to execute a strategy that requires support from multiple functions, with defined checkpoints to get approvals and input from others (again, typically leaders at a higher level, or — even worse — committees with unclear decision authority).

There are a few major flaws with the decision tree.

First, it is designed based on the assumption that employees don’t have the ability to apply sound logic to choices based on the context they have. Not only is this not true (if you think it is, then you have a serious problem with hiring and accountability), but it actively discourages employees from taking ownership of their decisions and results. It pushes employees away from thinking critically. A decision tree also makes it feel unnecessary for leaders to share the strategic context employees need to make good decisions. If employees are supposed to just follow a predetermined list of steps, you don’t have to make sure they’re capable of good decisions.

In addition, a decision tree is designed with the assumption that work and priorities are static. I think we can all acknowledge this isn’t true 99.9 percent of the time. As soon as a strategy or checkpoint changes, a new decision tree needs to be drawn up, or the decision tree remains the same and provides inaccurate guidance.

Last, let’s be honest, if a decision tree is more than just a few steps, it’s a safe bet it’s not going to be used. This means we’ve discouraged good behavior by introducing a tool that no one even uses.

4. Cross-functional planning teams (with siloed execution)

Cross-functional planning teams are another common practice. In this scenario, project work starts on the right path. The relevant stakeholders from different functions are pulled together and (hopefully) go through the messy process of integrating perspectives, compromising, planning next steps, and sharing a roadmap with their respective teams.

This is a great start, but it’s just that; this approach doesn’t put anything in place to maintain alignment and coordination as a project progresses. It’s based on the premise that the outlined plan can be applied as is, and so doesn’t address the need for continuous communication that smart, fast pivoting requires.

As soon as that roadmap is passed off to the executing team, different factors start slowly moving the project on a different trajectory, and the project members have no greater clarity on how to navigate changes and emergent tradeoffs. This approach expects discrete teams to effectively collaborate while no conditions are set to enable them to do so.

In summary, most attempts to create cross-functional capacity don’t address the factors that actually cause most of the dysfunction we seek to eliminate:

⛔ Functional goals superseding shared outcomes

⛔ Unclear decision-making processes

⛔ Lack of effective rhythm for communicating, collaborating, and learning

⛔ Lack of understanding concerning the functions of other team members

In fact, we typically don’t focus on the project-team level at all. Instead of solving for team-level issues, we put practices in place that are temporary solutions, at best, and, at worst, completely ineffective.

So, if those options don’t typically work, what do we do? In the next section, I’m going to focus on tactics that anyone can use to improve cross-functional workflow, regardless of what structure they’re stuck in. Using better teaming practices can alleviate some of the tension you’re feeling in cross-functional work. It can also create pressure to adjust your company’s formal structure once others start seeing the benefits of the new way you’re working.

Short Circuit Any Structure With These Practices

1. Practice: Treat the work as a cross-functional project and the people working on it as an actual team — rather than a group of individuals completing related work — right from the start.

If there is cross-functional work, that means there are cross-functional projects, which means there should be real project teams. Frame and kick-off the project as a team endeavor through the use of an official kick-off meeting and team charter.

Collectively discussing success or failure can counteract some of the ineffective behavior that formal structures implicitly encourage. This practice won’t remove competing commitments, but it will strengthen relationships and generate more effective mindsets. Build a team identity by doing the following:

  1. Clarify the purpose of the project. E.g., What are we working toward together (not what are our independent business unit goals)?
  2. Identify the core team members. (Typically you want this number to fall between five and nine) E.g., Who is included in “we”? Who can I depend on? Who will be doing day-to-day work on this project?
  3. Build the foundation for psychological safety through some form of self-disclosure.

Tool: Team charter

You can use the team charter pictured below as a guide for a kick-off meeting agenda and to create a tangible artifact that team members can reference. The image below is just one option; we often tailor team charters to the specific project.

2. Practice: Take competing commitments head on before the tough decisions surface.

One of the biggest challenges in cross-functional work is negotiating the competing commitments of individuals who belong to different home teams. Often when teams agree to shared goals, problems arise later over how to move toward those goals. Do we prioritize speed over quality or vice versa? Do we care more about taking care of org debt or building new product?

These are the questions that teams get bogged down in or push up to leaders because there is no objectively right answer. If a team agrees on which competing commitment to prioritize before that trade-off moment arises, the individual team member doesn’t have to think twice about what choice to make. It removes the need for repeat debates over the conflicts that will show up over and over again.

After a few months, teams should revisit the commitments they’ve decided to prioritize and re-evaluate whether they are still the best way to get to their ultimate goal.

Tool: Even/over statements

Agreeing on how to prioritize competing commitments can be tricky because teams are often focused on diametrically opposing goals. The important thing here is to use a participative process rooted in the current context, long-term goals, and a mindset of, “Is it safe to try?” versus, “Do I completely agree?”

So, how do you do that? Have team members come up with two or three “even/over statements.” The idea is to choose a good thing that should take priority even over another good thing. They should also refer to two good things that are typically in conflict with one another.

E.g., Market share even over margin; progress even over perfection; security even over user experience; etc.

Have the team vote on the top three (each person gets three votes) and use the integrative decision-making process to agree on whether those even/over statements are safe to try.

3. Practice: Establish a team rhythm that promotes interactions like collaboration, learning, and reflection rather than relying on individual action.

Meetings are often not structured. Establishing a rhythm is how teams can maintain awareness of each other’s’ workload, upcoming decisions, and decision outcomes. This structure is how you maintain alignment of co-created goals, hold each other accountable to upholding the even/over statements the team agreed to, and collectively learn from each other.

We coach teams to be very deliberate about the operating rhythm in which they are working. Instead of scheduling meetings in an ad hoc manner, we encourage them to schedule specific types of meetings at specific intervals.

Every week, there should be an Action Meeting to unblock the work and set the team up to get their work done for the next seven days. Roughly every month, the team should come together to retrospect and make necessary changes to the way they are working together.

Great cross-functional teams don’t leave their meeting cadence and rhythm to chance — they sweat it from day one.

Tools: Run a weekly Action Meeting

1. Check-In: Everyone answers, “What has your attention right now?”

2. Checklist Review: Everyone answers “Yes” or “No” to each checklist item (often used to encourage specific behaviors we want to see in the team).

3. Metrics Review: The team reviews the metrics that tell them whether they are on the right path. Metrics are updated weekly.

4. Project Updates: One person per active project answers the question, “What has changed on this project since last week?”

5. Build Agenda: Everyone adds topics to the agenda by calling out a placeholder word or phrase. The team focuses on topics that will unblock the work in the coming week.

6. Process Agenda: Facilitator works through the agenda; everyone gets what they need to unblock the work.

7. Check-Out: Everyone answers, “What did you notice?”

4. Practice: Clarify decision rights and use a clear decision process to avoid the downfalls of consensus.

Many of the problems with cross-functional work come in the form of decisions being made in isolation that shouldn’t be, over-collaboration that turns into an ineffective effort to create consensus, or general debate about who can make the final call for what.

Even within the structures outlined at the beginning of this piece, these tensions can be avoided by taking time to clearly define who can make what decisions on their own, when decisions require the advice of cross-functional partners, and when decisions require the integration of many perspectives. The question of who to ask, and when, is demystified, and it prevents teams from having to go to leaders when they have the information to make a decision but their authority is unclear.

Tools: Decision rights and integrative decision-making

Decision rights are an outline of what decisions specific roles (think CFO), shared roles (finance team members), and/or discrete teams (finance) have the authority to make on their own.

Have teams and team members draft their decision rights independently and then have a group session to present those drafts and debate them. Decision rights should be directly linked to team/role purposes and accountabilities. Use the integrative decision process to finalize the outcomes.

Here are some examples:

Lastly, integrative decision-making can be used to navigate decisions that are so complex and high impact that no one team should be responsible for making the final choice on its own. Ideally, most decisions can be made locally because of already articulated decision rights, but sometimes decisions that are particularly risky or complex must be made. In those cases, you can bring in the necessary team members and use the integrative decision process.

With practice, even the gnarliest of decisions can be made without the angst most cross-functional teams know all too well.

Cross-Functional Work as a Discipline

While certain organizational structures make cross-functional teaming simpler or easier to accomplish, the organizations who have found the most success in working this way know cross-functional collaboration is a discipline. Breaking down organizational silos is about using specific practices and internalizing helpful organizational principles as much as it is about using, or not using, particular organizational structures.

Since structure is often difficult and invasive to change, it makes sense to try using some of these behaviors and tools before you take a hammer to your organizational chart.

Ready to change how you work? The Ready helps complex organizations move faster, make better decisions, and master the art of dynamic teaming. Contact us to find out more. While you’re at it, sign up to get our newsletter, Brave New Work Weekly, delivered to your inbox every week.

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