Cross-Functional Teamwork: Integrating Your Company’s Teams

People Discussing in a Cross-Functional Teamwork
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Everyone knows that teamwork is an essential part of life, in school, in sports, at work, etc. Even more important than simply having teamwork is the type of teamwork. Not all teams are functional. Some methods of working in a team are better than others. Cross-functional teamwork can be a great way to produce success.

Cross-Functional Teamwork Explained

Cross-functional teamwork is essentially exactly what it sounds like: this is when a team is comprised of individuals who serve different functions or have different skills. The team is not comprised entirely of just programmers, just graphic designers, just marketing professionals, etc. The team has people with different job titles all working together as a cohesive group.

This term is also used to describe when different teams at a company come together to work on a project together. If you are a company that makes toys, for example, this could mean your product design team, website programming team, marketing team, graphic design team, and management all come together in order to launch a new product.

In the second example of cross-functional teamwork, the teams will typically have a manager that leads them and helps to facilitate discussion between all the different teams in order to make sure they are all on the same page.

Because everyone has a different set of skills and is working on different aspects of their common project, this manager is necessary to ensure that everything runs smoothly. Programmers have different day-to-day goals than social media managers do but at the end of the day, their long-term goal for the project is the same.

Cross-functional teamwork doesn’t have to be for isolated incidents like a company-wide project, though. In fact, your company can run much more smoothly if all your teams are working together and/or if individual “teams” have members with different skills and backgrounds. Your company can’t function in a healthy way if the different parts of it never interact or don’t understand one another.

This dysfunction can often be seen in companies like construction companies where there is a “production team” and an “office team”. The production team often feels like the office team doesn’t do any of the actual work and is always getting on their cases about menial things.

The office team often feels like the production team doesn’t communicate with them properly regarding job progress, customer satisfaction, etc. and that this makes their job harder. With cross-functional teamwork, both teams can come to understand that they both serve vital functions in the company and that they can both do things to make one another’s lives easier.

Why This Is Important

Why is cross-functional teamwork important? Because it makes your company better. When all your teams are communicating with one another and working together, work is done more efficiently. Miscommunications about deadlines or about who is working on what will happen much less often because everyone is always working together.

Another reason this is important is because it can help avoid any problems that might come up. Say your company is creating a new website for itself. Two teams that would play integral roles in this would be your programming team and your graphic design team. One is needed to do all the backend programming and one is needed to make banners and graphics that make the website appealing.

If the two teams are working in isolation, problems can arise. Maybe the graphic design team ends up with a deadline that is a week later than the programming team. The website obviously can’t go live without the graphics. Or maybe the two teams have a different idea about how the final website will look and the graphics don’t end up working with whatever layout the programming team developed. If the two teams were working together from day one, these kinds of problems wouldn’t occur or would be quickly resolved.

Teamwork that is cross-functional also helps your teams and the company as a whole to make more informed decisions. Has a team in your company ever agreed on a deadline with a client, only to realize later that the deadline was unreasonable?

If all teams are working together, the company can make a better decision about how long it would take to do the work the client is asking for. Understanding what every team needs to do and how long it will take to do it in order to complete the project will help to develop a more solid, reasonable deadline.

Cross-Functional Project Presentation
Photo by Sean Do on Unsplash

Communication, Collaboration, Coordination

Working with multiple teams on a daily basis can be difficult and tiring at times. It is often easier to get into your own groove and just do your own thing, only worrying about the other teams when it’s time to pass off your piece of the puzzle. When you work with people who all have different skill sets it can sometimes feel like you all speak different languages. There are three essential things to look at when it comes to working cross-functionally.

First up is communication. This may seem like an obvious one but you may be surprised by how often teams forget to communicate with one another. Communication needs to be open between teams at all times, not just when a big deadline is coming up.

Teams need to be able to ask one another questions. They need to know what everyone is working on so they don’t end up doing the same work twice. If one team is stuck, another team may be able to offer advice or look at the project from a different point of view in order to get it moving along again.

When everyone is talking with one another all the time, miscommunications can also be caught early and won’t develop into huge problems down the road.

The next one is collaboration. Every team needs to agree on what tools they will use to work on tasks together. If one team uses Google Hangouts to message one another and another team uses Slack, they aren’t collaborating. If every team has a separate team calendar that the other teams can’t see, they aren’t collaborating.

They also need to have common methods of problem-solving. If there is an issue between teams, who do you go to for help? What is the process for letting other teams know a deadline can’t be met?m

The last one is coordination. Each team needs to know one another’s progress on any project they are all working on together. This is especially essential when one team can’t start working on their part of the project until another team has finished theirs and passed it along. You can’t start creating product prototypes or working on marketing strategies until the product is actually designed. If everyone knows what stage everyone else is at, projects go much more smoothly.

The Downsides of Cross-Functional Teamwork

The pros of cross-functional teamwork are clearly outlined already: it can help your company to be more efficient, complete projects faster, solve problems, etc. But what about the downsides?

One potential downside to having a cross-functional team is that developing an entirely new team of people for your company can be costly. If you are creating a whole new team of new hires, this means you are increasing your payroll. If you are taking people from other teams to create the new team, that may mean those teams could potentially be losing key members.

The employees within a cross-functional team may also not have the same priorities. If the team does not have strong leadership and clear goals, members will develop their own goals and priorities. This can often cause the team to lose direction on their project.

There may also be a disconnect between employees when it comes to things like how they communicate and what technology they use. They may be used to doing things a certain way when on a team that is comprised of people with their same skillset. They may think certain things are “common sense” or that everyone knows how to use a certain kind of technology and be shocked to find that this isn’t true of everyone on their new team.

How Do You Develop Cross-Functional Teamwork?

Many small companies and startups end up with cross-functional teams out of necessity. When your company only has five people, each “department” isn’t really a full team. Everyone has to work together to complete tasks and projects because things won’t get done if they don’t. The office person might end up helping the marketing person out because the work they are doing is too much for one person or they just need someone else to bounce ideas off of.

But how do you develop cross-functional teamwork in an environment where there are clear lines between departments? One way is to assemble a team made up of people from different departments. You might make up different teams of people depending on the project you’re working on. If doing this, you need to make sure that each team member can work together in a functional way.

Putting two people with a combative history on the same team is probably not going to be a good idea and won’t have the results you want. Finding the right people for the project is essential. You also need a good leader for the team. Some teams can work freely together without a manager but others cannot.

On a day-to-day basis, you can start developing teamwork between all your teams and departments in simple ways. Give everyone access to one another’s calendars. Have weekly cross-departmental meetings where every team gives updates about what they are doing. If one department is falling behind on their work, see if another department can help them.

Laying the Groundwork

When developing cross-functional teams, you need to have clear rules and guidelines for the team. Someone from a marketing team and someone from a manufacturing team will be used in different ways for communicating between team members and may have different ground rules in their individual teams.

When they come together to be on the same team, they need to find common ground. Teambuilding is one way to help a cross-functional team be successful. Let everyone air out their concerns and problems before they start working on projects together. Find out what potential problems might arise and come up with solutions for them before they end up actually being a problem. Use these teambuilding exercises to help each member of the team to understand the other members.

Establish clear rules for the team as well. The team needs to know who they go to if there is a problem. They also need to know what the guidelines are for solving problems themselves if management isn’t able to help them. Without established guidelines for how the team is supposed to function, everyone may just end up going off on their own anyway, completely defeating the point of having a cross-functional team.

How Does It Work?

It can be hard to imagine cross-functional teamwork without a solid, real-world example. One example of a company that effectively uses cross-functional teamwork is Toyota. All the teams in their company are integrated, from manufacturing to marketing, finance to product design. There are separate teams and departments that all serve different functions but they all work together for a common goal and they collaborate as much as possible.

Toyota is a large company and it isn’t always economical or possible to have in-person communication between teams but they put an emphasis on written communication in lieu of that. They distribute reports to all team with updates on how projects are going. Everyone has the same access to the same information so that no team is left in the dark.

They also have “Chief Engineers” who are in charge of overseeing their vehicle development centers. These people help to oversee projects and maintain communication between all the teams working on them.

Improve Your Teamwork, Improve Your Team

While cross-functional teamwork is not without its disadvantages, if done correctly it can be very beneficial to a company. In the simplest of terms, when everyone is on the same page, things go more smoothly. When everyone in a company is able to understand one another and work in harmony, things get done faster and sometimes even better than they would be if each department was working separately from the others.

Improving communication and collaboration between everyone in your company can create a much better company culture, one where people feel comfortable asking other departments for ideas and one where nobody feels like their voice isn’t being heard.

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