How to head off the fatal flaw in cross-functional teams

There is one essential question you must ask when forming a coalition to address a particular problem or achieve a specific goal. Without it, your employees might be spinning their wheels.

A bold claim was made in a recent post by Ted Bauer, a content guy interested in engagement, management, and leadership. He wrote:

Cross-functional teams are almost completely and entirely bullshit.

Bauer’s conclusion is based on personal experience, but also on results of a study published in the Harvard Business Review that found 75 percent of the cross-functional teams studied were dysfunctional. That dysfunction was based on teams’ failing on at least three of five criteria:

  • Meeting a planned budget
  • Staying on schedule
  • Adhering to specifications
  • Meeting customer expectations
  • Maintaining alignment with the company’s corporate goals

Bauer argues that cross-functional teams falter because team members prioritize their day-to-day work over the extracurricular assignment. I find it hard to disagree with Bauer, but the first thing that occurred to me as I read his post was a Melcrum study on intranet success.

Granted, this study is ancient in Web terms. The 14-year-old survey of more than 500 intranet managers from around the world found that the most successful intranets—those that achieved companywide goals and got the most funding—were governed cross-functionally. Way back then, nearly 70 percent of companies had some kind of cross-functional tam in charge of intranet development. Those teams were made up of representatives from departments with a significant stake in the intranet: IT, internal and corporate communications, HR and marketing.

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Bauer’s advice is to forgo the team and instead “find the most empathetic, sincere, people-first person in a low-level managerial role at your company…and hand the project over to him or her.” That would never have worked in the intranet scenario.

Intranets pose a challenge in organizations because they serve many masters:

  • Human resources uses the intranet to provide an interface to information and transactions related to a worker’s employment, everything from pay stubs to benefits enrollment; those staffers also want to keep employees informed on HR matters, such as benefits enrollment deadlines.
  • Employee communications uses the intranet to keep employees informed of the company’s activities and provide channels for collaboration, interaction and engagement.
  • IT is often responsible for keeping the whole thing running.
  • Legal must ensure that nothing on the intranet sparks a lawsuit.
  • Other departments all have expectations of what the intranet will do for them.

As a result, any one department or manager who makes decisions about the intranet can be seen as stepping on the toes of others. From design changes to navigational structure, everyone wants a say.

The best way to do that—as the evidence bore out—was for representatives of all those departments with a stake to get together and make decisions as a team in the organization’s best interest. That is, when they held their monthly meetings, they left their departmental agendas at the door and functioned as a cohesive body dedicated to the intranet as a tool that served the entire organization.

Lessons from the Land Shark

Here’s another example, even more ancient than the Melcrum study.

I wrote an article for the Mattel employee newspaper sometime in the mid-1980s about a cross-functional team designed to shorten the cycle time and reduce costs associated with developing a particular toy. (It was the Land Shark, part of the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe Line.)

The cycle time was based on a linear process. The design group would design the toy, then turn the design over to the engineering group, which would figure out how to build it. They would throw it back to the design group when the design couldn’t be produced using standard production processes. Once they had gone back and forth a few times, the design would get tossed to costing, who would send it back because the cost of manufacturing would exceed the highest price they could reasonably set for the product. And so it went, back and forth, back and forth.

The cross-functional team brought representatives from all those departments together to take a stab at a different approach: concurrent (rather than linear) development. It worked. The team shaved considerable time from the process and saved a ton of money.

All of which raises the question: What makes some cross-functional teams work and others fail?

Essential elements for success

The author of the study that found most cross-functional teams are dysfunctional, Behnam Tabrizi, says teams need certain characteristics, including a team leader who remains accountable throughout the project, clear goals, a focus on project success and ongoing re-evaluation. All that’s well and good, but for the two cases outlined above—intranets and concurrent development—there’s something else going on: The cross-functional team is the best solution to a genuine problem.

If company leaders recognize the cross-functional team’s unique ability to solve a problem, then two other things are required:

  • A charter: The purpose of the team should be clearly defined leaving no question about the desired outcome.
  • Upper-level support: The executive team must own that charter.

Other factors contribute to any team’s success, such as celebrating milestones and recognizing participation. Still, for any cross-functional team to triumph, the organization must need that specific team to get something done.

So, the first question to ask when assembling a cross-functional team is this: “Do we really need this team to achieve this goal?”

If the answer is no, don’t form the team. If it’s yes, give the team the support and resources it needs to behave as an autonomous group brought together to solve a problem.

Follow this one rule, and the success rate of your cross-functional teams will soar as the total number of such teams plummets.

A version of this article first appeared on Shel Holtz’s blog.

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