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The Many Benefits Of Cross Functional Teams

One of the biggest challenges I see leaders face is designing their organizations to compete with the unforeseen demands, and doing so together, as a team.

My experience in working with leaders and managers to help them get the most out of their teams tells me that there is a fundamental misunderstanding about how teams should function, which completely makes sense because employees have been raised in an industrial revolution fashion where hierarchy was the preferred structure.

With hierarchy, information flows top-down, leadership remains the same (with the leader and nobody else), and cross-functionality is non-existent because the structure of the organization compels people to think in silos rather than in systems.

Well, the times have changed because hierarchy is dead (for the most case).

What’s so striking to me is the reluctance of organizations to adopt this “new” team-based approach because, in reality, it’s nothing new at all.

Teams are about relationships and relationships have always been how work gets done. The sticking point for them is how to apply structure to it and tie team performance to the bottom line. It’s difficult to put structure to something that you’ve never had to think about.

But the truth is there’s a huge difference between companies who figure it out and those who are still working on it. In fact, one study by Deloitte found that “74% of high-impact HR organizations reported outstanding expertise in developing teams, while only 34% of low-impact HR organizations reported the same.” What this means is that if you want to create a “high-impact” organization, teams are the way to go.

By structuring work through teams as opposed to large departmental silos, you not only cross-pollinate perspectives and experiences (which help shape creativity and innovation) but also align daily behaviors with business strategies. This was something we did at my last command in the SEAL Teams. Guys from one team would be sent to another team once they reached a certain level in order to cross-pollinate the mindset, values, and cultural norms from their previous team with the new.

Here's why cross-functional teams work:

Trust.

It's easy to "scale" trust within a small team because it’s small. It’s not so easy when it comes to larger organizations. One way to build trust is (and this will completely blow your mind) by extending it. I know, crazy.

Try this: Extend trust between teams by having each team share—in a weekly meeting—what they've done and what they've learned as a result. What this does is breed two things:

It enables learning because by sharing collective knowledge each team becomes more aware of themselves, each other, and how their team fits into the larger organizational puzzle; they can see the forest and not just the trees. This broad collective awareness, in turn, builds a greater collective capacity. Boom.

Information sharing builds healthy competition (with the keyword here being “healthy”). It's natural for teams to compete and that's fine, they should. It's not natural for teams to want to win at the expense of others.

Ownership.

Ownership allows freedom of movement. When you own something, from inception to completion, everything along the way is yours--the successes, the failures, the lessons learned, the way forward--which means you’re not going to settle for mediocrity, because you own the outcome. It also compels you to see the big picture and how your team fits into and serves the larger organizational mission.

Speed.

This is the money maker where cross functional teams add value. In companies divided by functional divisions or silos, the speed of decision making is far slower due to the sheer number of mediums through information must pass. The “telephone effect” is maxed out, which is when the message sent doesn't equal the message received.

More creativity.

Cross functional teams are cognitively diverse by design, which allows for more a holistic problem-solving approach. By “holistic,” I’m referring to the ability for those solving the problem to see the problem in its entirety rather than just a piece of the puzzle. Think of it this way.

"Problems" can be divided into three categories:

  1. The new problem that you’re trying to solve for.
  2. Future problems that have not yet occurred yet but could as a result of the current problem
  3. Past problems that haven't been solved yet.

The only way to mitigate the risk, damage or threat of the problem is to examine what works, what doesn’t and why from a cross-functional approach; from different perspectives that heighten the team’s collective awareness about what could be.

More freedom.

This is what receiving a target deck looked like in the SEAL Teams:

"Here's the problem, now go fix it."

 

The takeaway here is that when you give the team a desirable end state and the autonomy to solve for it, they'll figure out the best way to get there.

Nobody likes being micro-managed. Plus, when there's autonomy to work the way you want, that means you also have ownership on how you choose to work together.

What practices do you employ for working in teams?

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Every week I share news, articles and insights on mindset, leadership, and teams designed to help you grow as a person, as a team and as a company.

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