Being into quality and organizational improvement, I have always worked with cross-functional groups. By definition, a cross-functional team is the one where members from different functional areas work towards a common goal. A few years back, I got an assignment to lead a cross-functional team (xFT) and it was a great learning experience. Our goal was to implement information security management system spanning all departments, support groups and technical production team. It was an interesting ride because of challenges it posed, and challenges = lessons.
Recently, when one of my friends was also asked to manage a xFT in a different context, I ended up sharing the following key lessons (and challenges) on how to lead a xFT effectively:
In xFT, like in anything else, leader is an enabler: Every team member’s contribution to the team is vital because they carry the knowledge of their own context. The role of leader in a xFT is that of a coach – an enabler who eliminates roadblocks for team members to surge ahead in their priorities.
Leading xFT = Managing Diversity: Functionally, all team members are diverse and have their own reporting relationships, beliefs and values. They have to be led without the strings of formal reporting structures attached. This also means their time allocation may be diverse, so would be attitude and skill level. A leader’s challenge is to elicit their involvement without binding them into traditional management structure.
Trust is even more crucial for success: Since they don’t have a formal working relationship with the leader, building trust is the only way to move things forward. Leading is all about trust, more so in the case of leading a xFT. With trust, people self-organize, think favorably and take right decisions. As a leader, be inclusive, respect their opinions, showcase their contributions, recognize their work and be positive.
Clear goals are drivers of autonomy: In a xFT, decision making is bottoms-up. They decide the course of action and have autonomy to change the course depending on situation. So, the only way a leader drives these discrete decisions is by setting very clear goals and defining clear outcomes. This also means that leader has to work extra hard in setting up rituals for communication and status tracking.
Early “wins” are important: When a xFT starts working together, there will be a lot of ambiguity and doubt in their minds. They may not be confident about their ability to work together. They may be swayed away by their own departmental priorities. In such situations, if they see early wins, it reinforces their confidence. A team that achieves constantly, in increments, is the team that stays together productively. Early wins make the work and progress visible.
Constant communication is the glue: that binds the team together. Establishing rituals and communication forums (formal and informal to create face time is critical to keep team on track. These routines also helps a leader sense problems even before they actually happen, manage expectations constantly, provide feedback, learn about each other and manage conflicts. Communication is the most important tool in a leader’s toolkit for building trust.
Building a high-performing team in any situation is difficult and when team members are from different functional groups, a leaders role in creating a performing whole from discrete parts is both a challenge and an opportunity.
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