Definition: cross-functional team
A cross-functional team is a team of people with diverse backgrounds, skills, and expertise who come together to work on a specific project or goal. These teams often consist of members from different departments or functions within an organization, bringing a variety of perspectives and knowledge to problem-solving and decision-making processes. Cross-functional teams provide organizations with a valuable opportunity to tap into different areas of expertise to fuel exciting new opportunities for innovation.
Distinguishing characteristics of cross-functional teams
Here are a few distinguishing characteristics of cross-functional teams:
- Cross-functional teams consist of members from different areas of expertise within an organization—marketing, engineering, design, user testing, finance, and so on.
- They promote collaboration and communication between various functions, bringing a diverse range of perspectives and ideas to the table.
- Cross-functional teams often have a broader scope than more siloed teams, letting them tackle complex problems and projects that require input from multiple disciplines.
- These teams can enhance innovation and creativity by gathering together individuals with different skill sets and backgrounds.
Exploring cross-functional team structure
The right cross-functional team structure can encourage greater collaboration, communication, and sharing of different perspectives and expertise. While the right structure will vary from one team to another, it is important that the team leadership is clear and that the leader is chosen not for their expertise but for their ability to mediate various communication issues and to make sure widely varying personalities all have an equal chance to be heard and to feel valued in their participation.
Because cross-functional teams are particularly effective in complex or rapidly changing environments where multiple perspectives and skill sets are needed to tackle significant challenges, these teams can also face greater stress than more traditional teams. The team’s leadership needs to be able to maintain a sense of calm camaraderie and to ensure a structure of equality for the team, leading by supporting and encouraging others rather than by hierarchical authority.
Elements of cross-functional team structures
Beyond the leadership role, the remaining elements of a cross-functional team include members with diverse backgrounds, skills, and expertise, allowing for a multidimensional approach to problem-solving and decision-making. Representatives from various departments may come from different levels in the organization, presenting a new challenge to the team’s leadership. Within the team, members need to be treated as equals to ensure that all perspectives are heard and acknowledged. When managed effectively, this cross-functional team structure fosters innovation, collaboration, and communication—ultimately leading to improved outcomes.
Cross-functional team examples
In today’s rapidly changing market, most enterprise organizations employ cross-functional teams to drive creativity and stay ahead of the innovation curve. Here are a few examples:
- Google: Known for its cross-functional teams, the company’s Google Doodle team gathered engineers, designers, storytellers, and animators to create a 2-hour game to celebrate the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.
- Apple: Celebrated for creative designs that are clean, elegant, and functional, Apple uses cross-functional teams to make sure engineers and designers work closely together, building cutting-edge technology with recognizable Apple style.
- General Electric (GE): In a wildly successful 2013 experiment, GE created an autonomous, cross-functional team to design a new refrigerator. Thanks to a continuous flow of information from salespeople, designers, materials suppliers, and customers, the new refrigerator sold at twice the normal rate, cost half as much, and went to market twice as fast as previous models.
Key elements for cross-functional team collaboration
While the nuances of effective cross-functional team collaboration can be subtle, the following nine elements provide an essential foundation for success.
1. Open communication
Team members need to be free to express their thoughts and ideas, able to listen actively to others, and willing to provide feedback in supportive, encouraging ways. This requires effective leadership as well as powerful communication tools for messaging, video conferencing, and real-time collaboration.
2. Shared goals
All members of the cross-functional team should have a common understanding of the team’s goals and objectives. This helps create a sense of purpose and ensures that everyone is working toward the same outcome.
Team members need to trust and respect each other’s skills, expertise, and contributions. Building trust can be achieved through open and honest communication, transparency, and rewards and recognition for exceptional examples of teamwork.
Embracing all forms of diversity in a cross-functional team can lead to innovative solutions and creative problem-solving. Remaining open and curious about new perspectives and opinions—even when they may feel unfamiliar or even counter-intuitive—can enhance team performance.
5. Clear roles and responsibilities
To avoid confusion and conflicts, it is important to clearly define each team member’s role and responsibilities. This ensures that everyone knows what is expected of them so they can contribute effectively to the team’s objectives.
Cross-functional teams often face unexpected challenges, ideas, and findings. Encouraging flexibility and providing support when needed helps the team adjust quickly, find alternative solutions, and keep moving forward.
7. Effective leadership
Cross-functional team leaders need to foster a positive team culture, facilitate communication, mediate conflicts, and provide guidance and support. A good leader recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of their team members and helps leverage their skills to achieve the team’s goals.
Cross-functional teams can work much faster and innovate more reliably than traditional teams as long as they are given the right amount of authority and autonomy to make decisions. The more these teams need to run ideas “up the ladder” of traditional leadership, the more they risk their innovative ideas being rejected before they can be proven.
9. Testing as proof
When cross-functional teams rely on the strength of personal opinion to make decisions, much of the value of the team’s diverse perspectives can be lost. Instead, cross-functional teams should be given the tools they need to test various ideas—giving every idea an equal chance of being proven through objective, quantifiable means.
Building a collaborative culture
Success in cross-functional projects depends on a collaborative culture that encourages teamwork, creativity, and innovation. Unfortunately, building that kind of culture is not an easy process, especially for large enterprises with thousands of employees.
To help address that problem, today’s enterprise organizations employ tools such as modern, AI-powered intranets to build and maintain the kind of engaging, collaborative culture that can support cross-functional teams.
Effective communication practices
Just as cross-functional teams tend to do best when they exist within a collaborative corporate culture, the teams themselves also need to foster a culture of open collaboration. This starts by building effective communication habits:
- Active listening: Team members need to pay full attention to each speaker, taking in verbal and non-verbal cues and responding appropriately. If something the speaker says sparks an idea, listeners should be encouraged to make a note of the idea and then return their attention to the speaker rather than blurting things out or “tuning out” while they hold the idea in their head.
- Clear and concise messaging: Using simple, understandable language to convey information and ideas often takes more effort than casual conversation, especially when the speaker and listener come from different disciplinary backgrounds with different vocabularies. Team members may need to “fill in the gaps” to help each other understand perspectives that are informed by diverse skills and knowledge bases.
- Non-verbal communication: Team members should be trained in paying conscious attention to body language, facial expressions, and gestures to enhance understanding and convey emotions—both their own body language and the body language of others. Otherwise, excitement may come across as being “pushy” or reflective thought could appear “aloof.” Being aware of body language can help avoid such misunderstandings.
- Feedback and clarification: Seeking clarification, giving constructive feedback, and ensuring that messages are understood and received as intended are all important aspects of effective communication. The practice of repeating communication back to each other to ensure understanding may feel time-consuming at first, but establishing a foundation of clear, open communication is vital to the success of a cross-functional team.
Cross-functional team leadership
Effective cross-functional team leadership helps to ensure that team members work together cohesively toward their common goals. Cross-functional team leaders need to possess strong communication skills and the ability to foster collaboration, leveraging the unique strengths of each team member.
Role of a leader in a cross-functional team
In a cross-functional team, the leader is responsible for setting clear objectives, clarifying roles and responsibilities, and facilitating communication among team members from different functional areas. They need to possess (or develop) strong communication and interpersonal skills to bridge any gaps between team members with diverse backgrounds and expertise.
Additionally, cross-functional team leaders should possess strong decision-making skills as well as the ability to prioritize tasks to ensure the team’s success. They must be adaptive and flexible so they can maintain a calm presence when addressing any challenges that may arise within the team, ensuring a cohesive and productive working environment.
Leadership strategies for cross-functional team success
While every leader is unique, effective leaders of cross-functional teams tend to share the following four leadership strategies:
- Fostering open communication among team members from different functional areas.
- Setting clear goals and expectations for each individual member as well as the team as a whole.
- Encouraging diversity of thought and ideas to leverage the strengths of each functional area.
- Providing continuous support and resources to help team members overcome challenges and achieve success.
The benefits of cross-functional teams
Cross-functional teams enhance efficiency and productivity by leveraging diverse strengths and skills. They also foster a sense of ownership and accountability, increasing employee engagement, as team members work together toward shared objectives. Benefits also tend to include improved outcomes and a more holistic approach to tackling complex challenges.
While the benefits of cross-functional teams are never guaranteed—depending on factors such as leadership, corporate culture, availability of resources, time constraints, and more—many organizations have reported the following additional benefits of cross-functional teams.
Cross-functional teams are designed to break down silos, fostering collaboration and communication between different areas of the business and bringing together individuals with different perspectives, knowledge, and skills. These diverse backgrounds and experiences spark a wider range of ideas and solutions for more creative and innovative outcomes.
Improved problem solving
Cross-functional teams lead to open knowledge-sharing for a more thorough understanding of the problems they are tasked with solving. This multidisciplinary approach often leads to a more efficient resolution of those problems. Cross-functional teams also tend to foster a sense of ownership and accountability in finding effective solutions.
Respect and empathy for multiple perspectives
When employees are able to see things from different points of view, it promotes empathy, creativity, and innovation throughout the workplace. Fostering respect and empathy for multiple perspectives helps reduce conflicts and misunderstandings while giving every employee a greater sense of belonging, resulting in a more supportive work environment and higher levels of employee engagement.
When teams work together collectively to brainstorm and implement solutions, they can address challenges efficiently and effectively. This results in a more streamlined, cohesive work environment in which everyone feels that their skills and ideas are valued. By fostering an intentional culture of collaboration and open communication, cross-functional teams are often able to find comprehensive solutions to problems that benefit the entire organization.
Challenges of cross-functional teams and how to navigate them
Cross-functional teams can lead to innovative solutions and better decision-making, but they also present unique challenges. One such challenge is the potential for communication breakdowns and conflicts due to different ways of working and communicating. Another is the potential for power struggles and competing priorities among team members from different departments or functions.
To navigate these challenges, it is important to establish clear goals and expectations, ensure transparent communication, foster an intentional culture of collaboration and respect, and provide training and support for team members to enhance their cross-functional collaboration skills.
Cross-functional team collaboration challenges
Every group of individuals is unique in its own right, leading to a unique set of challenges. In addition, the problems faced by teams can include challenges that arise from the broader corporate environment or organizational structure, such as a lack of resources, lack of autonomy, or the lack of a supportive corporate culture in which to operate.
Nonetheless, the following challenges tend to occur with predictable regularity in cross-functional teams, especially when the individuals in those teams have not worked closely with each other before.
Diverse thinking and communication
When individuals with different skills and perspectives come together, that diversity of thought can lead to exceptional problem-solving or disastrous conflicts. Most of these conflicts come down to communication gaps or differences in the way teams are used to working. Direct communication from one team may sound rude to another. Polite communication in another team may lead to members of that team feeling hesitant to speak up. Leaders of cross-functional teams need to be prepared to integrate different work and communication styles into a cohesive whole.
Managing different personalities
Personality differences in a cross-functional team may help to fuel innovation but they can also lead to new conflicts. By recognizing and respecting the various personalities within the team, a manager can promote a positive and inclusive work environment while maximizing the team’s overall performance.
Conflicts and conflict resolution
Effective conflict resolution strategies are essential in managing the kinds of conflicts described above and finding mutually beneficial solutions. This involves open communication, active listening, empathy, and perseverance. By addressing conflicts promptly, effectively, and continuously, multi-functional teams can foster collaboration, creativity, and a greater sense of solidarity and teamwork.
Ensuring equal participation
In any cross-functional team, some members will be quicker to offer ideas and insights than others. It is important for team leaders and managers to create a supportive and inclusive environment in which all team members feel comfortable expressing their opinions and are encouraged to contribute their unique skills and expertise. This can be achieved through clear communication, equitable distribution of tasks and responsibilities, active listening, and fostering a culture of respect and open-mindedness.
Remote teams or distributed teams
Cross-team collaboration often brings people together from different locations, resulting in an entire team that’s working remotely. Because these teams are often tasked with tackling complex projects, this can be a particular challenge for project leaders. To keep the team running smoothly, project updates need to be frequent and clear. Team meetings should also employ video conferencing for real-time, face-to-face interactions.
Cross-functional team leadership challenges
Leading cross-functional teams can be challenging due to the inherent complexity of managing individuals from different departments or disciplines. Effective cross-functional leadership requires strong communication skills, the ability to build trust and rapport with team members, and the ability to facilitate conflict resolution. Overall, successfully leading cross-functional teams requires a combination of strong interpersonal skills, adaptability, and a clear vision of the teamwork and team experience they want to achieve.
The role of a modern intranet in enhancing cross-functional teams
In today’s competitive landscape, cross-functional teams have become increasingly important in helping organizations achieve their goals, but the realities of remote and distributed workplaces are making it harder than ever to break down siloed departments and build a collaborative company culture.
A modern, AI-powered intranet helps build and maintain a collaborative organizational culture while directly supporting cross-functional work—and cross-functional communication.
Ensuring smooth communication
A modern intranet platform can act like a “front door” for a virtual team space by gathering team communications across multiple platforms and presenting them in a clean, organized dashboard.
Facilitating collaborative work
Modern intranet platforms also sync with collaboration tools and project management tools, putting individual goals, project timelines, and other project information in one place.
Keeping everyone on the same page
An intranet platform can also help promote a collaborative organizational culture. Company goals and initiatives can easily be communicated across the organization, and successful cross-functional teams can be celebrated together.
To see how Simpplr can support cross-functional teams and improve collaboration in today’s digital workplace, take a moment to explore our modern AI-powered solution.