At Rhythm Systems, I have had the opportunity to work on several exciting cross-functional projects to help our company move forward. I’ve been part of the team that built our Certification program, part of a team that evaluated, selected and implemented a new CRM, part of the team that’s writing our new book, Predictable Results, to name just a few. While juggling these growth priorities with my day job can be challenging, these projects typically bear amazing fruit and deepen my relationships with coworkers in other departments. I view them as a way to challenge myself, improve my current skills, and develop in new areas. Based on my own positive experiences with cross-functional work, I was surprised to read the results of Behnam Tarbrizi’s study in the Harvard Business Review: “75% of Cross-Functional Teams are Dysfunctional.”
According to the research, there are some pretty specific conditions to avoid if you want to have a healthy cross-functional team.
4 Don'ts for Cross-Functional Teams
- 1. Lack of systemic approach: The culture of your company has to support this kind of work for it to be successful. Companies that have no clear governance, poor accountability, unspecific goals, and lack of support for cross-functional teams will make it nearly impossible for these teams to succeed.
- 2. Silos that run deep: If you put together a bunch of people from teams that have underlying animosity or believe that they won’t work well together, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you have the attitude that engineers and creatives don't work well together, that attitude spills over into the cross-functional team and undermines the project’s success.
- 3. Side projects: Many cross-functional projects fail because the team members see the work as “extra credit” - something to do if they have spare time. If you don’t put the project in your quarterly plan and track it each week with priorities and action items, it won’t happen.
- 4. Rigidity: Avoid becoming legalistic about these teams. It’s OK for them to disband after a period of time, or have different team members participate at different times rather than in every meeting. Each project should be frequently evaluated; just like any Winning Move you work on, test your assumptions, make adjustments as needed, and ensure that the project remains aligned with the business goals.
The research (and my own experience) also provide some clear conditions under which cross-functional teams thrive.
4 Do's for Cross-Functional Teams
- 1. Support from the executive team: Tarbrizi found that successful cross-functional teams were overseen by high-level cross-functional teams of executives or had a single executive champion. Most cross-functional teams I’ve participated in have had a member of the executive team participate in the team and advocate for its success during company quarterly planning and weekly adjustment meetings.
- 2. One neck to ring: Or, as Tabrizi puts it, “every project should have an end-to-end accountable leader.” Having one person clearly accountable for the success of the project, despite the various contributions and responsibilities of other team members at different points in the project, is key to successfully executing.
- 3. Begin with the end in mind: Before the project even starts, everyone on the team should know the goal, what resources are available, and the deadline. We start most of our cross-functional projects by writing an Objective Statement. We also put the projects in the Rhythm software with an owner, a due date, and clear Red-Yellow-Green success criteria. This eliminates any confusion about what needs to happen by when.
- 4. Include cross-functional work in your plan: If you are serious about success, make sure that your cross-functional work shows up in your plan for the quarter, even if it means that you have to say “no” to some of your team’s other projects to make it happen. If you are an executive, consider including cross-functional work in your team members’ Job Scorecards and performance compensation calculations so it isn’t viewed as something extra but as part of their job.
While it might seem like a lot of work to set up a culture and conditions in which cross-functional teams can thrive, it is well worth the effort. As Tabrizi says, when cross-functional teams work, “the organization is ultimately more successful.” These teams can "speed innovations to market," and "enable the organization to renew itself.”
Good luck, and let me know your tips for successful cross-functional projects.
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