8 Keys To Effectively Managing A Cross-Functional Team

More and more organisations today are turning towards cross-functional organisational structures. It’s understandable, considering the pace at which change and disruptions occur in the corporate world today. Cross-functional teams can allow for greater interdepartmental synergy, jumpstart innovation, and vastly reduce the red tape otherwise involved in intra-organisational collaboration.


While the idea of putting together a functionally diverse team is seductive, it does come with its own problems. When you have that many people from that many departments in one room together, things can get a little crazy. Collaboration occurs a little differently; communication barriers and mutual distrust are two of the most common challenges afflicting such teams.

Of course, this doesn’t spell doom. According to the Harvard Business Review, the most significant contributing factor to cross-functional team performance is proper management. No matter how dysfunctional a team may be at the outset, if they have a good manager, there’s still great potential for stellar performance.

Clearly, as a manager, it’s crucial for you to understand how to lead cross-functional teams effectively; here are eight ways to do precisely that.

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1. Choose the right people

Selecting the right candidates is essential for any team’s performance. When it comes to cross-functional teams, though, choosing the right people is even more critical.

With so many people coming from different educational backgrounds and work experiences in various industries and departments, it can be tough to relate and to communicate well with one another.


Each person may feel like those who aren’t talking in their language (as far as lingo, industry jargon, and technical terminology are concerned) may as well be speaking Greek.

For that reason, you need to make sure that you don’t just shortlist the most competent or creative people in each department to make up a cross-functional team. Look out for people with excellent communication skills as well; they’ll need to be able to explain themselves simply and succinctly to people who aren’t trained in the same fields.


2. Set clear team and individual goals

Even the most dysfunctional teams can unite under the same banner once they understand that they’re all working towards the same purpose. With functionally diverse teams, it’s vital that they’re clear of what the team objectives are, what problems they’re trying to resolve through collaborating, and why there was a need to bring together people from different departments to that end.


On top of that, there should also be clear individual performance benchmarks and roles within the team. Knowing what the team as a whole is working towards is the starting point. Building on that, each member should also be aware of exactly how their individual goals and unique skill sets will contribute to the team’s overall performance.


3. Establish communication norms

Right from the beginning, managers need to get everyone on the same page about how communication will take place within the team.

Depending on the exact configurations and nature of your cross-functional team, decide collectively on how often the team should meet, and on which mediums meetings will occur (for example, online, or face-to-face?)


Additionally, it’s essential to set the tone for open communication from the outset. That includes you, as a manager, clearly stating what your expectations are for the group in terms of how they collaborate, communicate, innovate, and perform.

Let them know that they’re welcome to ask questions if they don’t understand what another team member’s saying or doing and that they’re encouraged to voice out dissenting opinions or propose alternatives in the interest of encouraging team innovation.

You should also communicate the degree of autonomy your team has so that there’s a balance between promoting innovation and maintaining efficiency and productivity.


4. Provide psychological safety

Without a doubt, the most indispensable element necessary for effective team collaboration is psychological safety. People need to feel safe around another to fully let their guard down and go all out in working together as one, instead of as a loosely linked assembly of individuals.

With cross-functional teams, it may be harder to establish this; you need to factor in things like inter-departmental rivalries and perceived status differences.


These will almost certainly play out on the battlefield during group collaboration. If you don’t take the initiative to build trust among your team members from the start and throughout the project, it could spell their downfall.


5. Encourage task-focused mindsets

Conflicts are bound to occur in cross-functional teams. It’s not the frequency of disputes that you need to worry about in this case; this is understandable considering how vastly different team members may be in their respective areas of expertise.

What’s more important is to look at the nature of these conflicts. According to Stanford Professor Lindred Greer, task-related conflicts–disagreements about the nature, objective, and purpose of a task–have a positive effect on team performance, but only if they’re dissociated from relationship conflicts.


In other words, when a team has a task-related conflict, if they don’t take internal disagreements personally, they end up coming up with better solutions together than if they didn’t have those conflicts. On the other hand, if people are prone to taking work disagreements personally, it would jeopardise team performance.

Hence, encourage your team members to have task-focused mindsets when collaborating. Since they’ll undoubtedly have conflicts while collaborating, they need to understand how to go about resolving them as efficiently as possible.


6. Make full use of project management tools

Each team member will probably be accustomed to a particular workflow and way of doing things in their own departments. When they come together in a cross-functional team, it can be very confusing to have so many different working styles and modus operandi all in the same room.


Make things easier for everyone, including yourself; ensuring that everyone has access to a one-stop overview of task delegation, project progress, and ongoing deadlines within the team. Whether this means creating visual management boards or maximising online tools like project management, data management, and file-sharing software, depends on what works best for your given situation.


7. Harness cognitive diversity

Innovation and creativity both thrive on diversity, especially cognitive diversity. You need to strike the right balance between encouraging team members to adopt alternate modes of thinking, and tapping on their wealth of knowledge and expertise in their respective subject matters.


Sometimes, such as during ideation, fresh eyes can give new creative insights that a trained eye would miss. Other times, such as during idea evaluation, the insights of a trained mind are more useful.


8. Listen, empathise & engage

The very purpose of having a cross-functional team is to have better inter-departmental collaboration. It defeats the purpose if you, as a leader, are biased towards individuals from certain departments within the team.

The same goes for being too rigid and, for example, restricting the team’s experimentation. As Steve Jobs said, “We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”


Practice active listening and empathy. Pay close attention to what each team member is saying, and what they’re not saying, too. This’ll help you to overcome any potential biases you may harbour.

You also need to engage each team member individually to ensure that they’re coping well in the team and to understand better how to motivate each of them. Just as people have different work styles and modes of thinking, they also have different motivations.

Helping each of them connect their individual motivations to the team’s interests can do wonders for team performance.


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