Five Reasons Your Cross-Functional Team is Misfiring


This recent article highlights a trend many of us have sensed for some time: we are shifting away from a “war on talent” to “the best team wins.”  Many organizations have understood the power of cross-functional teams for years, so why is it we find so many teams launched, only to see them get stuck before delivering on their mission?

It happens more frequently than anyone admits.  You have a great kickoff, form a good group and they take off with a flourish.  Initially, positive progress reports become more nuanced, yet when you begin to dig in, you find that progress has slowed, or in some cases, stopped entirely.

The key to diagnosing their progress comes from understanding that a cross-functional team is set up to grapple with change to the established patterns and power structures of the firm.  This is not to say that consistency and patterns are a bad thing.  Rather, the consistency of organizational performance depends on it.  What is true, is that unless a firm has embedded a deep culture of organizational learning and agility, those patterns are very stubborn.

The resistance of the status quo is always underestimated, and surprise even veteran leaders.

I want to share a list of top areas to look at based on an experiential composite of my own work in Fortune 100 operations, as well as my current advisory work with organizations ranging from large multinationals to small privates.

Here are five areas to look at when a team gets bogged down:

1. Mission clarity   

Being very specific on the mission of the group is absolutely key.  There are only three reasons for a team: to recommend a decision, to recommend a plan or to implement a decision.  

The biggest gaps are usually found in setting up a team to do all three, which leads to confusion and ultimately overwhelms the group.  A good example of this is when process improvement teams are formed where the only objective is “to improve the process” and “remove costs.”  A better objective would be to ask for only one of the above three outcomes, i.e. recommend a plan that prioritizes process improvement efforts by impact to the customer.

2. Team leadership structure

It is very common for these teams to be lead by an influential “peer” in the organization who doesn’t have the formal authority to influence performance reviews or compensation.  Peer influence works at the outset, however there is always a point in a team journey where a crossroads is reached and formal authority is needed to nudge the group forward.  Balancing this formal and informal authority is very tricky, and good coaching is needed to do it well.  A best practice here is to provide good coaching to the team lead during short, weekly check-in meetings.

3. Team balance

Once you have tightened up the mission (point 1), the next exercise is to decompose the work into the key voices that need to be represented in the group.  Any team needs to have a balance of big picture people, runway level implementers and skillful process designers.  Making sure these temperaments are present with the key technical and functional skills are key.  A common example is putting a team of creative HR leaders together to say, “improve workplace engagement,” only to find out that no progress has being made because the doers had been left out.

4. Analysis Rigor

When teams are commissioned with foggy assignments, many times the pre-work on the big “why” has been cut short – something I saw over and over again in the early days of the quality movement that became Six Sigma.  Factory teams would be convened, and a team would be formed to deal with the issues that everyone “knew” were causing the quality fallout.  After solving issues and seeing no change in the measurements, however, true due diligence was undertaken and things began to happen.  By doing careful work, the linkage between customer issue and root cause were directly connected.  This allowed specific work that truly improved the end product and service.  The key is to make sure linkage between effort and results is well established.

5. Current stakeholders

Last but certainly not least, a common issue is the subtle undermining of the agenda by those who hold functional responsibility over the area being worked on by the team.  Things to look for here are the withholding of key resources or information which is hard to diagnose, because teams don’t know what they don’t know.  The fix here is to assure involvement of the full leadership team in the commissioning and success of the group, with a charge to hold their peers accountable for both positive and weak contributions.

There is ample evidence that well deployed, great teams (that have end-to-end responsibility for a service or a product) routinely deliver results that transcend those that any single, functional group might achieve.  I hope this checklist will help you keep your teams vibrant and in top shape.

In addition to my speaking and consulting work, I do reserve time to work with C-level leaders and subject matter experts through private, executive coaching relationships.  If you’d like to learn more about how I can help you guide your organization to clarity, action and growth, please call me at 847-651-1014 to have a chat.

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