Overcoming 5 Obstacles Cross-Functional Teams Face

Jun 5, 2015
8 Min Read

The cross-functional team and its development is a vital part of any organization looking for new ideas and solutions. Getting diverse individuals to pool their ideas and techniques to create out-of-the-box thinking can produce some magnificent outcomes. But not every experience is completely without wrinkles. Here are some common problems and ways to smooth them out.

The Problem: An uncertain command structure

You have two or more teams of fairly equal associates and managers. But what if they're so equal that no one is entirely certain who is in charge? Instead of groups and associates working toward a common goal, you get two or more competing groups vying for resources, training and guidance. (Every other failure can stem from this one, and it cannot be overstated.)

The Solution: Define the lead roles as early as possible

Even before the teams are introduced to each other, you need to establish a clear hierarchy. Nothing can sabotage a project or team as effectively as a poor statement of the chain of command. Get a consensus, and get it in writing. Note: This is also typically when egos come into play.

In the unlikely event that this hasn't been thoroughly discussed, then do so as soon as it's recognized. The consequences are failure and the missed opportunity for personal and professional development.

The Problem: Sharing information seems to be a one-way street

The joint effort should be exactly that: a meeting of two sides to share information and resources. But one group seems to be controlling the agenda and the distribution of work over the other—and is unwilling to spend the time with the other team and share their experiences and skills. Are members of that team reluctant to work with people outside their usual group? Or are they just unpracticed?

The Solution: Set smaller goals, and establish individual expectations

It's important to share not only resources and future goals but also regular expectations. The leaders of the groups working together should meet frequently, as should the individual members of the team. Each can take the responsibility for learning this process or that technique. Establish what is expected and revisit those expectations as often as needed.

Have members of your team partner up with members of the other team and give them the opportunity to build those bridges themselves. Correct any misconceptions about what sharing should be like going forward. You can also get a good idea who might be reluctant or simply inexperienced at sharing information and strengthen their confidence sharing in the future.

This is clearly an opportunity for everyone. If, however, a team member sees cross-functional teamwork as an opportunity for herself alone and not for others, then this is one problem that should be addressed swiftly.

The Problem: Failing to live up to expectations

When expectations are established, it's much easier to identify earlier on when they aren't being met, and there are frequently times when failed expectations get lost in the myriad tasks of day-to-day work.

The Solution: Reinforce the value and need for sharing information

Malfunctioning expectations needn't be seen as sign of incompetence or malicious behavior. As with change management, there is always the temptation to fall back into old patterns.

Take the time to follow up when communications have broken down and try to make positive examples of the successes of other associates: those who have met and surpassed expectations.

If the problem persists, the person or persons falling short might require more direct attention. Don't let up, particularly if they were erring on the side of productivity. They just may not have entirely bought in yet to the value and nature of the cross functionality of the team.

The Problem: Managing grievances

Communication lines are established, tasks assigned, a command structure is put in place. What about grievances? As anyone with experience beyond the playground knows, some people don't work well together. Also, previous interactions can sour current relationships.

The Solution: Internal or third-party impartiality

Asking for help is always better than risking failure. Internally, you can rely on the opinions of your team or seek out a third party with more experience for some guidance or arbitration. Solutions to personal or professional problems might require you, or your team members, to think or act in ways they haven’t before.

Cross-function sharing might be new and unnerving to them, too. You have to lead by example, and sometimes that means looking for help. If you think getting help for developing a cross-functional team isn't better than failure then you might be the problem.

The Problem: Moving on after a dispute

People working together to learn new things in new ways is both exciting and challenging—but internal conflicts are inevitable. Disagreements should be met with maturity or at least professionalism. Sometimes the resulting conflict will require an unhappy compromise or even a ceasefire until the reasons for the problem are exposed and dealt with.

The Solution: Find common ground…or create it

If separation isn’t an option, then its up to the supervisor or manager to take charge of the situation and act like a leader. The group is, in nearly every case, more important than perceived slights or even real ones.

Intelligence, maturity, team spirit, and genuine desire to succeed should be the defaults.  Set a high standard for behavior, and then expect it. If necessary, lead them to it.

The results, training, success and failures are owned by the whole of both teams. There are few problems that can't be overcome by setting solid rules at the outset, but there are surely challenges--and they can be overcome.

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