6 tips: Ease the pain on cross-functional teams

Are your cross-functional teams less functional than you think? Consider these six tips to smooth friction and improve results
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Digital transformation demands close and frequent collaboration between IT pros and people from many business functions. To support that collaboration, and break down the organizational silos that can thwart frequent technology-enabled innovation, more companies are using cross-functional teams. (These teams are also a key part of DevOps efforts.)

The problem: The vast majority of cross-functional teams are, in fact, quite dysfunctional, says Behnam Tabrizi, consulting professor at Stanford University's Department of Management Science and Engineering and an expert on organizational and leadership transformation. “You bring in people from various functions who each come from a different tribe with a different subculture, a different incentive system and perhaps even different goals,” says Tabrizi. Those differences don’t magically go away because people are all sitting at the same table.

As a result, team members “are being pulled into two different directions – they have a responsibility to the cross-functional team but their loyalty lies within their function and functional projects. All of this creates a lot of challenges,” he says.

In a detailed study of 95 teams in 2015, Tabrizi found that 75 percent of cross-functional teams failed on at least three of five criteria: meeting budgets, staying on schedule, adhering to specifications, meeting customer, and maintaining alignment with company goals. That research, while publicized three years ago, is even more relevant today as cross-functional teams are responsible for critical initiatives in many enterprises.

Company executives typically believe that they are removing the barriers to digital transformation by organizing people in cross-functional teams: But the virtual walls within the teams tend to remain, frustrating participants and thwarting performance, Tabrizi says.

"Cross-functional teams are the arteries of digital transformation, but most executives are not aware of how clogged these arteries are."

“Cross-functional teams are the arteries of digital transformation,” he says, “but most executives are not aware of how clogged these arteries are. People who participate in cross-functional teams know this. They live with it every day and feel the pain.”

Perhaps no one is more familiar with cross-functional team dysfunction than the IT professional – the tech utility player on many teams. However, CIOs and other company leaders can do a lot to remedy this situation for employees – and increase the effectiveness of cross-functional groups, says Tabrizi, co-author of The Inside-Out Effect: A Practical Guide to Transformational Leadership. Consider his six tips:

1. Put forward business-savvy IT players

IT professionals who understand both the needs of the enterprise and its shifting business ecosystem make the most effective cross-functional team members. They’ll not only understand what’s needed to ensure cross-functional success, but also earn the respect of representatives from other functions immediately. “The best cross-functional teams I’ve observed are those where you can’t tell who is in IT and who is in the business,” Tabrizi says.

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2. Institute cross-functional team governance

A portfolio governance team made up of key executives can oversee all cross-functional teams and projects across the enterprise. “A CIO can help develop this team,” says Tabrizi. This can eliminate one of the biggest problems in the cross-functional organization – the unchecked proliferation of these teams.

“IT professionals end up involved in too many cross-functional teams, and it’s death by meeting.”

“Any time there’s a new problem or opportunity someone starts another cross-functional team,” says Tabrizi. “IT professionals end up involved in too many cross-functional teams, and it’s death by meeting.”

The intent of the governance group is not to add a level of bureaucracy. Using a clear view of all projects in the pipeline, this leadership team should make sure all cross-functional teams have the right resources – and no additional cross-functional teams are created without a compelling business need.

3. Empower cross-functional team leaders

“The people who are represented in these functions often do not have the authority to make decisions, so they have to go back to functions for approval and often this takes a long time,” says Tabrizi.

This is frustrating to team members, negatively impacting their engagement and the performance of the group. “The other thing that I’ve learned researching these types of teams is that sometimes you can ask who the leader is and get different answers from different people,” says Tabrizi. “That’s alarming.” Clear and autonomous cross-functional team leadership is critical.

4. Anticipate the need to escalate problems

“Often times there is no path for how to resolve conflict and no clear escalation process,” says Tabrizi. When there’s a problem on a team, one person may go back and talk to his functional managers or executives about the issue. That complaint somehow gets back to the rest of the team, fueling distrust.

Clear problem resolution processes can prevent this. While the hope is that conflict can be managed within cross-functional groups, the executive-level governance group can also serve as a point of escalation for troubled teams.

5. Angle for early invitations

IT is often invited late to the cross-functional party, which can lead to issues, says Tabrizi. Equally vexing are situations in which IT does not participate on the team on a regular basis or someone more junior is sent in place of someone more senior. “It disrupts the approach,” Tabrizi says.

6. Factor cross-functional contributions into performance reviews

Some portion of the IT professional’s evaluation should be based on their contribution to cross-functional team efforts. “Get feedback from the leaders of these teams,” advises Tabrizi. “This way you ensure that your best IT people are helping out on the most critical projects, these teams are running smoothly, and there is true alignment between IT and other parts of the organization.”

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Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.