How to boost the effectiveness of your new cross-functional teams
New teams struggle notoriously in the “storming” phase of the classic “forming–storming–norming–performing” process of team development, as they confront potential dissension, power conflicts, and disputes about the best path forward. This period can become even more difficult when teams are cross-functional, composed of members from different departments and disciplines whose ways of working may diverge significantly.
While it’s natural to go through a phase of sorting things out, it doesn’t necessitate a descent into dissent. This formative time can be rich, insightful, and energizing, equipping members with the tools, skills, and confidence to prevail together—even in cross-functional teams.
The key is to design a cross-functional team’s first 30-60 days with great intention, and to directly address some of the common challenges that members will face together.
Take care of the basics right away
Every team, especially every cross-functional team, needs to know at the outset:
- What are we being asked to do?
- Why have we been asked to convene at this time?
- What is the outcome we’re expected to deliver?
- Why were each of us, and our functions, chosen to participate?
- When must we complete our work?
- What is the larger context we should understand?
- What resources are at our disposal?
- What power are we being given to negotiate for what we need?
These are essential pieces of information that someone should deliver definitively to the new team members before work begins and the teambuilding process commences. The best messenger is an executive sponsor who is assigned to the team for its duration, providing clarity, answers, access to resources, and political protection. If your new cross-functional team doesn’t have such a person, ask for one.
Identify the issues your team must confront
With the basics determined, the cross-functional team can now establish how it will become both functional and a team. Early on together, team members should answer these questions:
- How will we make decisions?
- What roles are required in our team, and how will we assign them?
- How will we address power dynamics among us?
- What standards of success will we apply to both the process of our work and our outputs?
- What needs to be in place to maximize our productivity?
- How will we establish trust together?
- How will we manage disagreements?
- What will energize us so we can do our best work together?
These questions focus less on what you will produce together and more on how you will work together. They are essential preparatory determinations, and require concentrated attention and time that will pay dividends later. Consider this analogy: If you were to paint a house, you’d put the necessary time into the preparatory scraping-sanding-repairing stages first, which would make the actual painting phase faster, easier, and the results altogether better. The same applies to preparing your team.
Here are energizing and informative ideas that will help your cross-functional team work better, faster.
Build strong human relationships
You and your colleagues will be tested and challenged over the course of your team’s existence. To build trust among you, invest time to get to know one another on a human level: What do you care about? What energizes you? What fulfills you? What (appropriately shareable) topics in your life are calling for your attention these days? Team members and colleagues are human beings first, and if you understand one another, your relationships will become more dimensional and durable as you work together.
You can do this faster than you may think. Peter Block, in his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, provides a simple activity in which three individuals sit facing each other almost knee to knee, and answer questions such as: “What is the crossroads you face at this stage of the game?”, “What is the price you pay for being here today?”, “What are the gifts you hold that have not been brought fully into the world?” In the many times I’ve run this exercise with groups of professionals, the comments afterward are always the same: “We’re amazed by how deeply we got to know each other in such a short time.” (Environment and timing matter when designing this activity, so create conducive conditions where participants can be appropriately reflective. If you’re doing this virtually, modify as needed—but keep the groups intimate.)
Find energy in a common purpose
Your cross-functional team’s charter and expected outcomes may be clear, but do they energize team members? In other words, is there a larger aspiration or higher purpose your teamwork can point to that will motivate the team beyond their assignment? For instance: How will the organization become stronger as a result of your work together? How will customers’ lives be made better? How might your work generate innovations? How might we address a longstanding issue that hampers performance?
While you don’t want to overreach or overpromise, the key here is to find the common and meaningful purpose in your joint work that will add fuel to the engine of your collaborative efforts, so everyone feels energized and motivated to contribute to the team’s success.
Reveal and address standards
Standards are the beliefs we hold about how work should be done and how people should act, and your cross-functional team will confront many of them. To be productive together, you’ll need common standards for the team, and ways of addressing them if you disagree. In the early days of your team’s existence, approach the topic of standards with openness, curiosity, even playfulness, to make your work with standards over time easier and better. Here are two activities to consider:
In pairs or small groups, interview each other about one or more standards you each hold about how work should be done or how people should act. The goal is not to influence or change a person’s standards; it’s simply to surface them so they’re discussable. Doing so in a cross-functional team can also expose standards that emerge from the different disciplines or departments represented in the team.
In a later step, use what you’ve learned to develop team standards that will help you to work together effectively. Here are some categories of standards you may wish to explore and then use as the basis for team standards:
- Keeping commitments
- Decision rights
- Information sharing
- Meeting schedules and processes
To further tease out standards that may help your new cross-functional team, consider a scenario-based activity, as follows:
- Identify a “What if” situation, e.g.: “What if our executive sponsor tells us the project must be accelerated so we must deliver results in half the time?”
- Discuss what standards you’ll apply in that scenario: Will you sacrifice quality to attain speed? Will you keep quality intact, but trim the project scope? Something else?
- Repeat for other “what ifs.”
- Talk about how the scenarios inform your cross-functional team standards.
By using scenarios, you can establish team standards that will prepare you for various situations. That’s superior to inventing a standard in real time, when you’re under pressure to perform and deliver.
Equip team members with skills and tools at the outset
While each team member may have been invited for their expertise and experience, there’s a good chance that the team will need new or common skills to succeed as a high-functioning group. If you learn together at the beginning of being a team, you’ll forge deeper bonds, create a common language, develop aligned approaches, and be better equipped for the tasks ahead. Here are some areas where teams typically benefit from new or burnished skills:
- How to communicate for greater effectiveness
- How to think together
- How to make decisions
- How to coordinate actions
- How to share feedback
- How to manage projects effectively
As you and your colleagues prepare to create a powerful, high-caliber cross-functional team, early and intentional investments can equip you to succeed throughout your joint project. In turn, you’ll find your work together is even more satisfying for everyone involved.
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