How to Manage a Cross-Functional Team





by David Burkus




A couple years into your career, you’ll find a few different opportunities to step up and practice your leadership skills. Sometimes it will be preparing and running a team meeting. Other times it may be volunteering for a new task the team requires.

You may find that your first “real” leadership role is managing a newly formed, cross-functional team for a specific and short-term project. Today, cross-functional teams — those with people from different departments who have varied expertise — are becoming more common, as is the rise of project-based work arrangements.

The most common reason for assembling a cross-functional team is speed — speed of information, speed of innovation, or even just the speed required to complete the project. Traditional organizational designs create functional silos, and those silos slow down the flow of information and ideas. Cross-functional teams build bridges that connect once-distant parts of the business and, if done right, allow people to work together better and faster.

But cross-functional teams also face a number of challenges that must be overcome to get off to a great start. Sometimes there are territorial tensions, where members feel accountable to their original functions and are not open to others weighing in on their expertise. Sometimes people have different ways of working, which can make collaboration slower and more difficult. Sometimes teammates are working inside an incentive compensation system that only rewards individual, rather than collective, performance or weights performance in their “normal job” as more important than performance on this project.

While these barriers may be present, they don’t mean your project is doomed. There are a few key actions new leaders can take to get their cross-functional project off to a great start.

Establish Goals and Roles

When a cross-functional team first comes together, it’s important to know exactly what everyone brings to the table. Each member has different knowledge, skills, abilities, and past experiences. As the team leader, it’s important to establish the scope of the project quickly, deliberate on the tasks required, and facilitate a discussion around who on the team would be best suited for different tasks. Resist the urge to assign tasks to whomever volunteers first. Take the time to understand each teammate’s abilities before delegating to the best fit person.

It’s possible that people will volunteer for tasks beyond their immediate abilities, viewing them as developmental opportunities. In this situation, you’ll want to get clarity on why the task interests them and what they aim to learn from it. You should also set them up for success by pairing them with teammates who can guide them along the way.

For example, if one person volunteers to design the slide deck for a prospective client presentation, but you know the presentation will require many charts and graphs and the volunteer isn’t experienced in data visualization, pair them with someone who can teach them the basics.

Set Communication Norms

Just as your team members will bring different knowledge, skills, and abilities, they’ll also bring their own unique work and communication preferences. Since they’ll be new to working together, they’ll likely lack shared norms for how they’re going to collaborate. Take some time during the initial project kickoff to discuss those work and communication preferences. Use the following questions to establish how the team will exchange information:

  • How should people keep each other updated on progress?
  • What mediums of communication should the team use and for what purposes?
  • How should one make requests for help?
  • How does the team want to give each other feedback?
  • How often should you be having meetings?
  • How will decisions be made?

These questions might seem to vary in significance, but they all matter for collaboration. Failure to establish collaboration norms tells teammates they can work and communicate however they want, making it more likely for messages to get missed. In addition, without clear guidelines, some people will inevitably end up feeling out of the loop while others feel like they’re doing all the work.

Getting into agreement early on around how the team will work together lets everyone know what’s expected of them, and what they can expect from others.

Build Safety and Candor

Reflect on what happens when you meet someone new. You’re likely at your best behavior and trying to say the right things so you don’t offend anyone. You’re not being inauthentic, just a slightly polished and refined version of yourself. Most of us do that. But on teams where we need to generate ideas and solve problems, we need to lower inhibitions and create a culture where each member can be more honest and less guarded. To encourage this openness, new leaders often call for candor in meetings, but doing so before building psychological safety is a mistake.

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to establish that level of safety. You can do this by signaling your own openness to feedback or expressing doubt in your own ideas. For example, when discussing work, you might say: “It sounds like we’re thinking similarly, but I’m worried I might be missing something. Are we on the same page or do you have any feedback?”

Then, as differing opinions are shared, don’t push back on them to defend your stance. Demonstrate respect for those ideas and invite further discussion. You could ask questions about the steps needed to implement the idea, or the assumptions the person is making that led them to that conclusion. You can always disagree further in the discussion, but not before your team members feel heard.

You can’t ensure the best ideas win on a team unless they’re being shared. And unless you’re building safety, you’re likely not hearing the best ideas.

Create Milestones and Small Wins

Once the big objectives and communication norms are in place, create checkpoints or milestones to help your team track their progress. Start with what a complete project looks like, and then break it down into phases and smaller objectives. In my experience working with these teams, you’ll want to create progress markers about one-third and two-thirds of the way through the project timeline, and then identify key wins that will need to happen more frequently.

Milestones don’t just track progress; they serve as an early warning signal that a pivot might need to be made. It’s better to miss a small deadline and correct the issue than to work for even longer only to realize the project won’t succeed. These milestones will also give the team early wins to celebrate and help them feel a sense of accomplishment. Celebrating small wins can boost morale and foster a sense of collective appreciation.

Remember, a team that feels appreciated will always do more than what is expected. So, make it a habit to celebrate small wins, and watch as your team’s motivation and performance soar.

These actions might seem like a lot of work at the start, when most people are motivated to dive right into the work instead of pausing to discuss how the team will work. But a little bit of time spent developing these norms will ensure the work is performed well. And when the team is performing well, and enjoys collaborating, they’ll be far more focused on the project — even when it’s only a small part of their “normal job.” These methods will help you better lead the team and establish yourself as a high potential future leader.


Source: HBR

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