What makes a rock band truly legendary? Is it the front man’s golden voice? The lead guitarist’s lightning-fast fingers? A drummer that can rock a good solo? Barring some notable exceptions, it’s usually a little bit of everything. While they’re all musicians, they bring different skills to the table, and the band really works when they’re all in sync. That’s why the rock band is the perfect example of the cross functional team.

But what if you’re running a tech company instead of a rock band? What does a cross functional team look like then? Here’s a primer on cross functional teams, and their benefits.

A cross functional team definition

A rock band is a small group of like-minded individuals with different skills coming together for one purpose: creating killer music. That definition encapsulates the cross functional team as well. People with different skillsets joining forces to accomplish something. In the context of a tech company, each member often comes from a different department. That means a cross functional team could very well include people from marketing, development, customer support, and even an executive or two.

Some cross functional teams are assembled for a long-term goal, whereas others are focused on short-term deliverables. For instance, you might create a cross functional team for the launch of a new feature, and the team will dissolve once the feature launches. Conversely, your team might have the ongoing role of creating off-the-wall marketing campaigns, and you want ideas from across the company.

So what concrete benefits can you get out of a cross functional team?

The benefits of a cross functional team

Now you know what a cross functional team is. But what can a cross functional team do that a more homogeneous team can’t? Here are just a few ways the former can out-perform the latter.

Break the echo chamber 

When a team’s been working together for a while, they get more efficient and can hit tighter deadlines. But that efficiency comes with a price; underlying assumptions are solidified over time, hampering creativity. You can hold all the brainstorming sessions you want, but they won’t help if people keep suggesting the same ideas over and over again. Putting together a cross functional team can be a great way of shattering the routines and assumptions that can come with established teams.

Get fresh eyes on problems new and old. 

Organizations tend to attach specific problems to their respective departments. Sign-up rate isn’t where it should be? Send it to marketing. Users are getting frustrated by recurrent bugs? Get customer support to appease them and development to fix the issue. While that approach works in many cases, sticking to homogeneous teams every time could keep you from finding that one off-the-wall, counter-intuitive strategy that solves a major problem. And while you could just throw the problem at everyone in the company in your #general Slack channel, why not build a team of people with different experiences and perspectives to tackle your biggest challenges?

Work outside the typical structure 

Maya Angelou wrote in a rented hotel room. Just removing herself from the structure and rhythm of her daily life put her in the mindset she needed in order to get her story out. Whether you’re still working remotely or you’re back in the office, cross functional teams are great for pulling people from their usual day-to-day and throwing them into a new reality, which can foster creativity, improve morale, and just generally make their workday more fulfilling.

Cross functional teams aren’t a one size fits all solution. For instance, you couldn’t put one together and expect them to build a marketing campaign from scratch or code a new feature from the ground-up. These tasks are best saved for homogeneous teams. But if you need to jumpstart the ideation process, or you’re looking for creative solutions to nasty problems, a cross functional team might be exactly what you need to get there.

Examples of cross functional teams

Maybe now you’re convinced that cross functional teams, like WD-40, can work miracles in the right context, but you might be wondering how to put them into action. Well here are just a few examples of what these teams can do:

  • Interdisciplinary squads. An interdisciplinary squad is a small team of people pulled from various departments to complete a specific project or nail a certain deliverable. A squad is a type of cross functional team, usually formed for a shorter timeframe, with the aim of completing a specific, defined task. It’s the concept of cross functional teams boiled down to the micro level. Squads are disbanded after their defined objective has been reached, while other cross functional teams can have an ongoing mandate.
  • Diversity teams. Striving for a more representative and open organization is the exact opposite of a specific, defined task. There isn’t really a single, final deliverable or a deadline. It’s an ongoing effort, and a cross functional team ensures that you’re getting varied opinions, ideas, and contributions. This is an example of a team that should be cross functional in more than just their roles.
  • Marketing research and development. Think of marketing R&D less like a continuous search for new technologies and more of a mad scientist’s laboratory. The aim is to create a space where people can go wild with ideas that may seem odd at the start, but once delivered can have a transformative impact on an organization. For such an initiative, it pays to have different views and skillsets.
  • Event planning. Can you think of a task that needs a more diverse group of skills than planning an awesome event? Administration, marketing, logistics, accounting… there’s a lot involved in creating a memorable party. This is a rare project that benefits from having a kitchen full of cooks.

Cross functional teams and the cross functional project workflow

A workflow is a map for getting work done. The cross functional project workflow map includes every step of a cross functional team’s journey from its creation to the after-party. Making this workflow more efficient means removing hurdles, smashing through blockers, and avoiding common pitfalls. Here are a few ways that can be done.

Use a workflow management solution

If the workflow is the map, the workflow management solution is part cartography tool and part helicopter. It gives you visibility on everything going on throughout the workflow, as well as the ability to fix problems on the fly and redraw your path to the deadline.

Meet no more than once a week 

Getting everyone on the same page can be challenging, especially for a cross functional team. The reflex might then be to hold more meetings to fill the gap. Not only can this create serious Zoom fatigue when working remotely, but it leaves people with little time to actually do the work they were put in the team for. Limit your meetings to once a week, and ensure everyone has perfect meeting etiquette to keep things moving smoothly.

Over-communicate and promote transparency

Each team has its own way of communicating. Bring people from different teams together and they’re bringing that baggage with them. Some will be used to only communicating certain high-level updates, while others will communicate everything. While splitting the difference might seem like the logical course of action, it makes much more sense to trend towards over-communication so nothing falls through the cracks. Find a centralized way of communicating — like a dedicated Slack channel for the team — and abuse it. Try to avoid private conversations between team members and instead make them public to the team.

Bring everyone together

Running a cross functional team creates an arena for fresh perspectives, killer ideas, and the potential eureka moment that propels your organization to a whole new level. So find your band name, gather your players, and get ready to rock.

What’s next?

1. Want to learn more about the cross functional project workflow? Read all about it here.
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