Cross-functional teams are increasingly part of various business strategies and activities, but building and effectively managing them requires a fairly specific skill set. The effectiveness of such teams depends on the way that they are put together and the way that they are led, so if you are part of one, or leading one, there are some things to keep in mind. Let’s take a closer look at how you can successfully build a cross-functional team within your organisation.


What is a cross-functional team?


When we think about our ‘team’ at work, we typically think in terms of departments such as the sales team, the marketing team, or the IT team. In other words, teams are generally seen as groups of people who have similar jobs and responsibilities.

A cross-functional team is very different, in that it generally brings together people with different job types and different kinds of expertise, typically involving different departments. In fact, cross-functional teams were previously often known as inter-departmental teams.

Cross-functional teams may be formed to look at an organisation-wide issue; to manage a project that is going to involve all departments; or to address, for example, communication, collaboration and skill sharing between different departments.

Why create a cross-functional team?

Cross-functional teams make good business sense for various reasons. They can help identify ways that different departments within the company can work together better and reach goals faster and more efficiently. They can also help find where the ‘bottlenecks’ in company processes are and discover solutions that will enable the business to eliminate them.

In addition, a cross-functional team is more likely to challenge the status quo and find better ways to do things. Within any particular department, groupthink can develop, which can slow innovation, whereas seeing how things are done in different areas of the business can help shake things up and get people to consider different ways of achieving goals. The solutions used in the IT department may be very different from those used by the marketing team, but there may still be plenty to learn from each other.

These teams can also help build a sense of cohesion and collaboration across the organisation. They potentially allow employees to better understand the big picture, and to incorporate any new knowledge they gain of the organisation as a whole into their own department’s processes.

Choosing the members of your cross-functional team

If you’ve been trained on agile teams, then you may well have come across the idea that team members come in different ‘shapes’, and specifically that there are I, T, M, Pi, E and X-shaped people. There is a lot to this theory, but in short:

  • I-shaped people are characterised by a single speciality or area of expertise.
  • T-shaped people have vertical (specialised) skills in a specific area but also horizontal (general) knowledge in other disciplines.
  • Pi-shaped people combine broad mastery of general knowledge with deep functional or domain expertise in two or more knowledge areas.
  • M-shaped people possess three or more specialities, each represented by a point of the M. As more specialities are added, the M shape becomes more of a comb shape.
  • E-shaped people actively demonstrate a combination of four specific characteristics: experience, expertise, exploration, and execution.
  • X-shaped people have a higher degree of self-awareness, adaptive capacity and a broad range of competencies.

Forbes has suggested that going Pi-shaped is needed to prepare for the work of the future, but in fact, on agile cross-functional teams, you may find that the biggest benefits come from employees from all categories working together. Pi-shaped and M-shaped people can, however, be particularly useful in being able to connect the dots and see how different organisational functions and processes, across their different areas of specialisation, may impact each other.

You will also see team members slowly evolving from one ‘shape’ to another as knowledge becomes both deeper and broader. In this way, cross-functional teams can support employee development by both broadening knowledge and allowing for the addition of new specialist skills as they work together to solve the organisation’s problems.

How can I better manage my cross-functional team?

Effectively leading a cross-functional team involves a range of skills, including strategic management and knowledge of organisational behaviour. In training leaders to manage such teams, businesses are looking to expand their workers’ education with programmes that can be taken online, alongside their role in the organisation.

Aston University, for example, runs a master’s in business management online, which can be completed remotely, studying part-time. Such continuing formal education, along with in-work training, will doubtless become more and more common as firms seek to train leaders able to manage more complex and agile work teams.

Some things to keep in mind while managing cross-functional teams include creating extreme clarity, both around overall objectives and individual roles within the team. Leaders will also need to create a safe space where everyone feels empowered to speak up with their own ideas and confident enough to present aspects of their own expertise and specialist knowledge that could affect outcomes, even when this may involve concepts or potential changes that may be unpopular overall.

In addition, collaborative teams in general, and cross-functional teams in particular, rely on excellent communication systems and policies to ensure that everyone’s voices are heard, everyone feels valued, and team morale stays high. Increasingly, this will include accessing software, in the form of a central project management system.

Keeping your cross-functional team on track

In order to ensure the success of your cross-functional team, one important leadership quality will be the simple ability to keep the team on track, by consistently monitoring progress and helping all team members to keep important aims and objectives top of mind. With so many different perspectives, skillsets and specialities in a single team, it is reasonable to expect that things will not always run smoothly. Staying adaptable and collaborating often, openly and effectively, with the main project goals in mind will help the team to keep moving consistently in the right direction.