A cross-functional team brings together people from different disciplines within an organisation, combining their diverse skills and experience to work towards a shared goal. It’s not new – the concept of the cross-functional team has steadily grown in popularity since first appearing in the 1950s.
Diversity of experience allows a group to approach problems from different angles, driving more effective decision making, problem-solving and innovation. The most significant insights tend to occur at the intersection of different perspectives, concepts, disciplines, cultures and life experiences. The more ideas that collide together, the more likely we are to discover something novel and valuable.
Cross-functional teams also help encourage shared understanding, both within a team and across an organisation. When people from different disciplines collaborate, they naturally build a deeper understanding of each other and with other parts of the business, including its products and customers. This broader awareness helps teams to understand what is most valuable and where to direct their attention.
That might all sound pretty exciting but team structure alone is not enough to guarantee innovation, agility or even smooth day-to-day operations. The reality is that with more perspectives comes a greater chance of friction, confusion and conflict.
A cross-functional team will often include people with very different backgrounds and very different takes on the universe. That might mean conflicting mental models, opposing goals or, most critically, a lack of empathy. Many of these problems might sound quite familiar. In a typical organisation, you might expect to find similar issues between departments, disciplines or locations — bastions of siloed knowledge with misaligned goals, lobbing work to each other over artificial divides. The cross-functional team condenses all this right down into a size that, with a little guidance, can turn these differences into advantages, resulting in fluid communication, shared learning and trust.
Managing Self-Organising Teams
While the Agile Manifesto and principles don’t specifically mention cross-functional teams, many Agile frameworks do. The Scrum Guide says that Agile teams should not only be cross-functional, but self-organising too.
How do you empower your cross-functional team with the autonomy it needs to be effective whilst also ensuring friction doesn’t cause it to self-destruct? Great leaders hear the different voices in the room, set aside authority and assume the role of facilitator to guide the team towards trust and clarity of purpose.
Managing Friction – Empathy, Learning & Trust
Diversity of thought can lead to A-Ha moments, but it can also lead to friction. Too much or the wrong type of friction can be corrosive. As a leader, your goal is to keep a balanced level of solution-focused debate, learning and discussion within the group, while ensuring every team member feels engaged and content with that process. If members of the team feel unheard, disrespected, misunderstood or threatened, the group may diverge into conflict or members may disengage entirely. Work with the team to build a culture that celebrates empathy, learning and trust.
The first step to overcoming excess friction is building empathy. Being able to understand another person’s point of view is key to finding common ground and moving forward. Building empathy begins with building a broader understanding of a person, their history, their goals and intentions.
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” – Dr Stephen R. Covey
To build empathy, you need to encourage interactions that help the team understand the working styles, personality types, strengths, weaknesses and personal goals of each member. Push the team to practice listening, focusing on seeking to understand. Equally, push the team to share more, in both 1-on-1s and group sessions via ice-breakers like a mindset check-in. For remote teams, always turn on the video – nuance and visual cues like facial expressions support engaged listening and reduce the risk of miscommunication.
Human beings are social creatures. Building social bonds helps us define and align on shared values. Being part of a community reduces stress and increases our ability to trust – we are wired to succeed together. Help your team form its identity – from its name to its ways of working and goals. Whether it’s sharing a meal or downing tools to play a quick game, use chances to build rapport and deepen social connections outside and introduce a sense of fun to reward the team’s hard work.
Facilitating a culture of learning means creating an environment of cognitive respect that encourages failing fast, measurement and iterative progress towards objectives. Cross-functional teams are ideally suited to these kinds of situations, as they leverage their breadth of expertise to learn together and adapt quickly. Allow the group to aim for a ‘good enough for now and safe enough to try’ decision-making mentality, making space for exploration and experimentation.
Individual learning is significant too because there will be a lot to learn. Creating a safe environment for the team to express weaknesses – gaps in skills or understanding, personal issues or mistakes – will deepen trust. Socially motivated learning is also more effective than going it alone, so leaders that foster safety will also promote learning and knowledge sharing. The first thing to do is lead by example – express vulnerabilities, ask for help and proactively offer assistance, then encourage the team to do the same.
Trust flows in safe, open environments where empathy is free to grow. Trust-building takes time, as we look for evidence of credibility, reliability and positive outcomes. Frequent, small-scale and intentional interactions allow it to develop more quickly.
Find ways of working that encourage regular interaction – rituals like 1-on-1s, stand-ups, retrospectives and pairing can help improve frequent communication and allow for trust to grow. Focus on:
- Honesty – transparency and truth are required for trust to last. Support it by building a safe space for failure.
- Consistency – behaviour that is predictable builds confidence that individuals can be relied upon.
- Humility – big egos make people feel excluded, diminished and unsafe – killing trust.
Managing Confusion – Purpose, Plan & Principles
The integration of people with differing perspectives, vocabularies and priorities can also lead to confusion. Cross-functional teams must align their thinking to ensure they are working effectively towards the same objective. As a leader, it’s your goal to help the team understand its shared purpose and then build a strategy to achieve it. Jump straight into this in a project kick-off and develop a charter that the team can refer back to later. The charter should outline the team’s purpose, success measures, responsibilities and ways of working.
Define why the team exists, what it is working towards and any specific shared goals. What does the group want to achieve together in the next 30, 60 or 90 days? Dig into the business context and users with ecosystem, journey or empathy maps to develop a clearer picture of the problems and work to be done.
There will likely be more than one valid interpretation of success, so discuss these transparently and agree on a mutual definition. Define the strategic objectives and metrics you’ll use to measure how you’re tracking towards them.
Principles & Practices
Perhaps the most valuable activity during kick-off is to develop a set of shared principles that define “how” the team will act and the practices that define “what” the team will do in specific situations.
The Agile Manifesto is a set of principles that guides teams towards becoming more adaptable to change. SOLID principles are intended to help software developers produce more flexible and maintainable code. LEAN intends to create more customer value by better understanding how value is created and managed. Your team should agree on its own set of guiding principles to aid decision making and resolve conflict.
Principles serve as a foundation for your team to choose a set of practices – the processes, tools and artefacts that will be used to get things done. This might include practices to manage ideation and discovery (OSTs, RICE) through to delivery (Scrum, Kanban or something in between). The practices you choose should be tailored to your team’s preferences and should evolve as they do, so make reviewing them a practice too.
High-performing cross-functional teams aren’t automatic – they require work. Leading with a focus on empathy, trust and safety will combat the toxic friction that hampers healthy collaboration for problem-solving and innovation. Aligning on a common purpose with measurable goals, as well as shared principles and practices will create clarity and set your team up to grow, adapt and succeed together.