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What kind of team do you work in?

Cross-functional teams

There are many different types of teams that occur in organisations. In this article, Andrea North-Samardzic outlines what some of these teams are, how they differ and what it means to work in a cross-functional team.

While many organisations are structured according to departments (eg accounting, marketing, HR), organisations are increasingly using cross-functional teams where people with different skills, abilities and expertise are brought together to achieve a common goal by working together in highly interdependent ways.

Common types of teams

Departmental Teams that consist of employees who have similar or complementary skills and are located in the same unit of a functional structure; usually minimal task interdependence because each person works with employees in other departments.
Cross-functional Typically multi-skilled (employees have diverse competencies), team members collectively produce a common product/service or make ongoing decisions; production/service teams typically have an assembly-line type of interdependence, whereas leadership teams tend to have tight interactive (reciprocal) interdependence.
Self-directed Similar to cross-functional teams except (1) they are organised around work processes that complete an entire piece of work requiring several interdependent tasks; and (2) they have substantial autonomy over the execution of those tasks (ie they usually control inputs, flow and outputs with little or no supervision).
Project Usually multi-skilled, temporary teams whose assignment is to solve a problem, realise an opportunity or design a product or service.
Virtual Teams whose members operate across space, time and organisational boundaries, and are linked through information technologies to achieve organisational tasks, may be temporary project or a permanent service team.
Source: Adapted from McShane, S, Olekalns, M, & Travaglione, T (2012). Organisational Behaviour 4e: Emerging Knowledge. Global Insights. McGraw-Hill Education Australia. Reproduced with permission of McGraw-Hill Education.

About cross-functional teams

These teams can be time consuming to form, as trust and understanding need to be developed and established among people with diverse backgrounds and job disciplines (temporary project teams are one clear and common example of this).

As team members have different functions in the organisation, you’ll often find that team members are more likely to dentify with their function or role, rather than the team.

This can make team cohesion quite challenging. However, it is a challenge that must be addressed as cross-functional teams tend to have quite high-performance expectations.

These types of teams have specialists from multiple areas brought together for a specific reason – and this reason usually comes with high expectations.

Success factors for cross-functional teams

There are a number of critical success factors for cross-functional teams.

  • Visible top-management support
    If there are high expectations of the team, then it is important that there are correspondingly high levels of support from those in the organisation.
  • Strong alignment with inter-departmental goals
    Cross-functional teams work best in environments that aren’t siloed. For individuals from different functions or divisions to work together, the team members must see that inter-departmental goals are important or they will be more concerned with driving their own function’s agenda.
  • Appointment of strong project leader
    Given the challenge of creating and maintaining team cohesion, as well as the complexities of managing a highly interdependent team, strong leadership is required. The basic principles of management, that is, planning, organising, controlling and leading are the four pillars of an effective project leader.
  • Appropriate resource allocation
    It is not enough for senior management to provide verbal encouragement. Appropriate resource allocation is required so that the different functions do not feel they are being short-changed by participating in interdepartmental goals.

Outcomes for cross-functional teams

Cross-functional teams may seem like a challenge, but they are worth it.

They are the very essence of teamwork. That is, a group whose individual efforts result in a performance that is greater than the sum of individual inputs.

As individuals from different functions, they alone could not achieve the goal. When put together, they have the potential to not only meet, but also exceed expectations.

This is what we refer to as synergism: the cooperative action of discrete entities which is greater than the sum of the parts.

Indeed, cross-functional teams can lead to people learning new skills and capabilities from their fellow team members, which is an important opportunity for any individual, as well as any organisation, that is looking to learn and grow.

Your task

What is your experience of working in or with a cross-functional team?

  • What challenges did you face?
  • How did you overcome these?
  • What were the results?

Discuss your experiences in the comments.

If you haven’t worked in a cross-functional team, post a question or use reply to find out more from other learners.

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