From small startups to giants such as Amazon and Netflix, companies have been adopting the concept of cross-functional teams to become more innovative, more productive, and more cost-efficient faster.
But what exactly is a cross-functional team? And how do you successfully run one? Let's dive in.
What is a Cross-Functional Team?
Cross-functional teams are groups of people who work in different functional areas of your business, such as sales, marketing, and customer support, and at different levels. These people can belong to both the cross-functional team and their own department, or your company structure can be made up solely out of cross-functional teams.
Cross-functional teams can exist long-term, but they can also be assembled to complete specific projects and meet specific goals.
Cross-Functional Team Advantages
It is often assumed that smaller companies already work cross-functionally as departments may consist of only one or two people. While there might be more consistent and frequent communication between functional areas in such companies, that's not the same as having a system set up for true cross-functional collaboration.
Below, you can find the benefits of working with cross-functional teams both as an addition to a more traditional departmentalized structure within a large company, or as the core structure for a small business.
1. Aligned company goals
Different departments have different goals that may all seem to fit within the company's overall objectives, but sometimes go against each other. Imagine how a marketing department may try to establish a brand image that's caring and customer-centric, while the customer support department has been instructed to close as many support tickets as quickly as possible.
When people from various departments come together to work cross-functionally, they start working toward a mutual goal. In the case of our example, a marketer may sit together with a support representative to discuss how they can develop a support process that is efficient but first of all customer-friendly.
2. Optimized company-wide coordination, systems, and processes
By working together, members of cross-functional teams get a better understanding of the role their department plays in company-wide processes and the larger customer journey. Because the workflows of different functional areas get connected, it becomes easier to identify inefficiencies and solve problems.
If a salesperson mentions how it takes them a lot of time to source qualified leads, a marketer may offer to set up a process that automatically tags email subscribers who meet certain criteria. That way, the salesperson would get a ready-to-use list of leads to contact.
Working cross-functionally allows for more comprehensive solutions than separate departments would come up with on their own.
3. Improved customer support
Imagine this situation: you contact customer support to solve a problem with a subscription. They tell you to get in touch with the billing department as they don't handle issues like this. When you do, the billing department tells you they cancel your current plan, but you'll need to get in touch with the sales department to get the right subscription plan going.
We've all experienced something like this at some point, and it's extremely frustrating. It's also the perfect example of what can go wrong when people don't look beyond the borders of their own departments.
A cross-functional team, in this case, would have a support, a billing, and a sales representative who would work together internally to solve this issue so the customer can be helped quickly through a single point of contact.
4. Efficient use of resources
Working cross-functionally also means spending cross-functionally, which often means spending less. After all, instead of needing a budget to address different problems and projects across different departments, you can look at where those projects intersect and create a single budget to tackle everything at once.
Doing so, you're also less likely to spend money on solutions that may work for one department, but conflict with the workflow of another.
5. Increased innovation
In a traditional organizational structure, a new product or feature idea may slowly move from one department to the other, taking months if not years before it's shipped. Working cross-functionally allows you to save time as members from different areas of the company work together simultaneously to develop the product.
For example, in a traditional structure, a product concept may go from the drawing board to the marketing team, which then decides how they'll position it. It'll then go to the sales team, that'll put a price on it, before going to the engineering team, that may then tell everyone it's impossible to make at the right price point. Back to the drawing board.
In a cross-functional team, a representative from the engineering team would be included from the start so they could ring the alarm bell whenever as soon as they saw an issue arise, at which point the marketing and sales representatives could decide to position the product differently and price it higher, or adapt the concept so it could be produced more cheaply.
Even within small businesses, working cross-functionally on new projects saves time. As team members are constantly in the loop about what's going on and give each other feedback, they avoid spending a large amount of time on a task that would otherwise get shot down at a later stage of the project.
6. Stronger employee engagement
By working cross-functionally, employees are encouraged to speak up. They learn it's appreciated when they communicate openly and point out problems, rather than staying within the limits of their tasks. This gives them a larger sense of responsibility.
Additionally, as they're challenged to learn about different functional areas within the company and can work on problems that go beyond their core tasks, employees are less likely to get bored. They go from being pure specialists in their field to what's also referred to as "T-shaped" workers: people with one deeply developed main skillset and several other skills they learned from and can now use to collaborate with their cross-functional team members.
Lastly, as collaboration is key within teams that work cross-functionally, their members develop better interpersonal skills which helps them get along better with their co-workers.
Cross-Functional Team Examples
Some quick examples of project-based cross-functional teams could be:
- to develop and launch a new product: a team consisting of a marketer, a salesperson, a product developer, someone from logistics, and a customer support representative.
- to solve an issue with customer churn: a team consisting of a data analyst, a web developer, a marketer, a sales person, and a customer support representative.
- to create a new email marketing campaign: a team consisting of a designer, a copywriter, and an email marketer.
Key Characteristics of Great Cross-Functional Teams
Cross-functional teams can be a crucial element when creating a high-performing, innovative and collaborative environment. However, a study from Harvard Business Review showed that no less than 75% of these teams are dysfunctional.
So what does that remaining 25% do that other teams don't? How do they overcome the challenges that cross-functional teams face?
1. They are made up of the right members
When assigning members from different departments to a cross-functional team, it's important to take a few things into account. You may be tempted to go for the employees who are best at what they do, but will they be able to function well with colleagues from other departments?
Having the right expertise certainly matters, but cross-functional team members also need to be able to collaborate with others while not needing anyone to hold their hand. They feel comfortable coming up with ideas and can clearly communicate them.
2. They put collaboration above competition
Make sure that cross-functional team members are truly working as a team, and not acting purely as spokesmen who want to defend the interests of their own functional area. In this regard, it's important to have a clear goal that everyone is working toward.
Aside from that, the team needs to be a safe space where everyone can discuss ideas and be heard regardless of their position within the company. Within a cross-functional team, a marketing manager may be working alongside a customer support representative and both should have equal input.
To achieve this, it helps to have a clear decision-making process in place. This includes defining priorities for when a choice needs to be made between the interests of two departments. An example of this could be the choice between keeping production costs as low as possible and creating a better user experience. If you've decided beforehand that both are important but user experience always comes first, the decision becomes a non-argument.
Organizing a team building activity is also a great idea, especially if members from the new team didn't know each other before joining the team.
3. They have a team leader with excellent communication skills
While not all cross-functional teams have a clear leader, the benefit of a team leader is that they can make sure everyone stays on track both in terms of timing and budget. They oversee project management, assign responsibilities and monitor progress, while giving team members the autonomy they need to do their part.
The team leader can also be the point of communication for upper management and the different departments represented in the team, and may take on some of the team's tasks themselves. Ideally, the cross-functional team leadership is made up of someone who has experience working in such a team.
4. They have the authority and resources to make decisions
For cross-functional teams to work, all represented departments must be willing to participate. It's an issue if the head of a key department doesn't allow their best employee to join the team, or refuses to implement the suggestions of the team.
While management can emphasize the importance of the cross-functional team and its goals, there's no better way to get buy-in than to include team "outsiders" periodically. This can be done through monthly meetings with department heads or even by including the team's progress in company updates. You can even use these moments to ask for suggestions.
5. They have their own communication channels and processes
Cross-functional team members should be able to communicate directly with one another as well as in group, and it's key that they have their own channels so their conversations don't get mixed with messages from other teams.
Slack is a popular tool for this as you can use it for the whole company while creating a separate channel for your team. For staying on top of your projects and workflows, Trello boards are great, and with Gmelius, you can even turn your inbox into a collaborative workspace.
That being said, people are creatures of habit and if someone is used to managing all of their tasks in one tool, they might have a hard time switching to another when joining a cross-functional team.
Gmelius solves this problem as it offers unique two-way integrations between Gmail and Trello, and Gmail and Slack, making it easy to communicate with and manage teams while everyone can use their preferred tool without missing out on any messages or updates.
Say, for example, that you create a dedicated Kanban board for your team. With Gmelius, team members can access that board both from within Gmail and from within Trello, and any task status updates will be reflected in both tools.
On top of that, Gmelius has its own API and integrates with Zapier. This makes it possible to connect even more tools across your stack.
Reap the Rewards of Working Cross-Functionally
Cross-functional teams allow your company to solve problems more quickly and efficiently. They boost innovation as employees from different functional areas work simultaneously on new ideas, and increase company alignment as team members collaborate to reach the same goals.
The tips outlined in this article will help you put together and manage a great cross-functional team and when you sign up for Gmelius, you'll have the perfect solution to communicate with team members across different tools.