A Practical Guide to Cross-Functional Work

Alison Randel
The Ready
Published in
10 min readAug 28, 2017

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Image: Designed by Alisha Lochtefeld

For virtually every organization, success requires both integrating 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 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 effectively work across functional lines and come together around shared outcomes.

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

According to research by Benham Tabrizi, 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 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 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’s designed around the flawed archetype of the leader as the thinker and communicator. This approach tends to place individual leaders as the primary — and often only — channel for passing information across boundaries, rather than building capacity for all members to contribute to that flow through the use of a structured meeting cadence or different communication tools.

This practice can also stifle collective learning, reduce direct contact between internal partners, and create a single point of failure.

The matrix also typically places two or more leaders as the ultimate approvers of projects and decisions. Best case, these leaders are 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).

Worst case, 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

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

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

The downside? This structure promotes reliance on leadership to resolve disagreements and does nothing to clarify how conflicts should be dealt with at a team level. These conditions can result in three major consequences: creating bottlenecks, slowing down team progress, and inhibiting capacity building within the working team.

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

3. The Decision Tree

A decision tree outlines a predetermined path for a set of choices the maker(s) believes will inevitably come up for cross-functional team members.

The idea is to outline a 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’s 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, but it also 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 meant to just follow predetermined steps, you don’t have to make sure they’re capable of good decisions.

Second, a decision tree operates with the assumption that work and priorities are static. But this isn’t true 99.9% 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.

Finally, and let’s be honest, if a decision tree is more than a few steps, it’s a safe bet it won’t be used. So, we’ve discouraged good behavior by introducing a tool no one even cares about.

4. The Cross-Functional Planning Team (with siloed execution)

In this scenario, 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 doesn’t address the need for continuous communication that smart, fast pivoting requires.

As soon as that roadmap is passed to the executing team, different factors slowly start moving the project onto 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.

What We Can Try Instead

Most attempts to create cross-functional capacity don’t address the factors that actually cause most of the dysfunction we want to eliminate:

⛔ Functional goals superseding shared outcomes

⛔ Unclear decision-making processes

⛔ Lack of an 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 at best temporary solutions—and at worst completely ineffective.

So, if the options we just discussed don’t typically work, what do we do? Next, let’s explore tactics anyone can use to improve cross-functional workflow, regardless of the structure they’re stuck in. Using better teaming practices can alleviate some of the tension cross-functional work produces; they can also create pressure to adjust a company’s formal structure once others start benefitting from new ways of working.

Structure-Agnostic Practices That Support Cross-Functional Work

1. Practice: Treat the work as a cross-functional project and the people working on it as an actual team — not a group of individuals completing related work.

If there’s cross-functional work, then there are cross-functional projects—which means there should be real project teams. Frame 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 alone won’t remove competing commitments, but it can help strengthen relationships and generate more effective mindsets. Build a team identity by doing the following:

  1. Clarify the project’s purpose. E.g., What are we working toward together?
  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. Use the team charter pictured below as a guide for a kick-off meeting agenda and to create a tangible artifact team members can reference. The image below is just one option; we often tailor team charters to specific projects.

2. Practice: Tackle competing commitments before 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. When teams agree to shared goals, problems often arise later over how to move toward those goals. Should we prioritize speed over quality? Do we care more about taking care of org debt or building new products?

These are the questions teams either get bogged down in or push up to leaders, because there’s no single right answer. If a team agrees on its prioritized competing commitments before that moment arises, an individual member doesn’t have to think twice about what choice to make. It removes the need for recycled debates over conflicts that will show up again and again.

After a few months, teams should revisit the commitments they’ve decided to prioritize and reevaluate whether they’re 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 participatory process rooted in the current context, long-term goals, and a mindset of, “Is it safe to try?” versus, “Do I completely agree?”

How to 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. Like “Market share even/over margin,” “Progress even/over perfection,” and “Security even/over user experience.”

Have the team vote on its top three (each person gets three votes) and get consent using the prompts, “Are these safe to try? Do they help us move toward our aim?” (If you want to learn more about consent and unlocking team decision-making, check out this article.)

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

Meetings are often not structured. Establishing a rhythm can help teams maintain awareness of each other’s workload, upcoming decisions, and decision outcomes. Structure is how you protect alignment around co-created goals, hold each other accountable, and collectively learn.

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

Every week, there should be an Action Meeting to unblock the team’s work and set them up for success for the next seven days. Roughly every month, the team should come together to retrospect and make necessary changes to the way they’re collaborating.

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

Tools: Run a weekly Action Meeting. You can explore Action Meetings more fully in this article, also from The Ready. But here are the nuts and bolts:

1. Check-In Round: 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 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 Round: Everyone answers, “What did you notice?”

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

Many of the problems with cross-functional work emerge when decisions are made in isolation, when over-collaboration turns into an ineffective effort to create consensus, or when general debate about who can make the final call for what drags on and on.

Even within the structures outlined at the beginning of this article, 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 goal is to demystify questions revolving around who to ask and when.

Tools: Decision rights and integrative decision-making. Decision rights can outline 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 session to present and debate those drafts. Decision rights should be directly linked to a team’s purpose and accountabilities. Use the integrative decision-making process to finalize the outcomes.

Here are some examples:

Integrative decision-making can even 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 particularly risky decisions must be made. In those cases, bring in the necessary team members and use the integrative decision-making 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 easier to accomplish, the organizations with the most success know cross-functional collaboration is a discipline. Breaking down organizational silos is about using specific practices and internalizing helpful principles as much as it’s about using—or not using—particular organizational structures.

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

The Ready is a future-of-work consultancy committed to changing how the world works — from business as usual to brave new work. We help organizations remove bureaucracy and adapt to the complex world in which we all live. Learn more by subscribing to our podcast and newsletter, checking out our book, or reaching out to have a conversation about how we can help your organization evolve ways of working better suited to your current reality.

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Alison Randel
The Ready

Travel Enthusiast, Psychology Nerd, Leadership & Org Design Consultant, Team Member at The Ready