Get Them to Build Castles—Strategies for Successful Cross-Functional Teams

Great leaders rely on both sides of the brain. The right brain meticulously lays out the goals and follows the tasks, timeline, and budget. The left brain uses emotional intelligence, empathy, creativity, and artful facilitation to keep all the players working productively together. The more diverse the group, the harder the left brain must work.

Keeping cross-functional teams on track can test even skillful diplomats. But there are tremendous advantages to learning how to create an environment where employees from sales, marketing, membership, and IT can build a castle together instead of throwing sand at each other.

Learning to create and manage multi-functional teams is a new skill for some association professionals. We have a history of top-down leadership, siloed organizations, and a tendency toward homogenized thinking.

That linear approach points straight to stagnation in the digital marketplace. The speed and volatility of online business call for a new kind of strategy. Planning must be integrated across the organization. Teams should be agile enough to iterate based on customer preference and to pivot when conditions change. This level of spontaneity is difficult to achieve unless all the business units involved collaborate simultaneously.

Cross-functional coordination is also critical to make the most of data that is now so readily available. Analytics gathered from multiple sources and filtered through a wide lens are an essential component of customer satisfaction in the age of Netflix and Amazon.  

Be Intentional

Coaching staffers to perform with the precision of a rowing team is not a seat-of-the-pants effort.

I wish this type of leadership were intuitive. But coaching staffers, who may have competing priorities, to perform with the precision of a rowing team is not a seat-of-the-pants skill. In 2015, “Harvard Business Review” reported that a study of 95 teams in 25 leading corporations revealed that 75 percent performed below at least three of these benchmarks:

  • Staying within the budget
  • Meeting the timeline
  • Adhering to specifications
  • Achieving customer expectations
  • Fulfilling corporate goals

Technology and experience have likely improved our skills over the last seven years. But this report highlights the importance of intentionality. Pronouncing that six of your star performers are a team, makes it a partnership in name only. It requires commitment and practice to deliver the true spirit of collaboration. That’s the secret sauce that makes your offerings delicious enough for members to stay engaged with their association in the future.

.orgSource consultants are pros at developing first-time, cross-functional teams. Kevin Ordonez, President and Managing Director of Digital Strategy, describes the benefits of mixing and matching talent like this. “Cross-functional teams bring multiple perspectives to the task. Membership staffers can provide customer insight. Marketers address the value proposition, messaging, and branding. And IT supports the technical functions.”

Our experience demonstrates that when you put the right strategies into alignment, a diverse team will reward you with:

  • Improved problem-solving
  • Higher creativity
  • Enhanced communication across the organization
  • Smoother progress toward goals
  • Increased professionalism
  • And, last but not least, a more enthusiastic culture

Commit to the Process

Any team can fail when there is a lack of commitment from the top. This is especially true where participants represent different disciplines and there is no direct chain of accountability. Don’t allow people to blow in the wind or make assumptions. Assign responsibility but give the team ownership by creating mutually agreed-upon goals, roles, and outcomes from project launch through completion.

An executive sponsor who oversees the budget, monitors progress, and is a liaison to the CEO gives the group a conduit to leadership. Senior leaders should also reinforce the team’s value and importance to everyone in the organization.

Create a Good Mix

Creating the right mix is a little like planning a successful dinner party.

Assembling the right group is a little like planning a successful dinner party. You want people who contribute to the conversation without monopolizing the evening. Build your team for skills and fit but add a few wildcards.

For example, consider including a junior employee who may not be a robust contributor but could grow from the experience. Or choose someone whose background might be unaligned to the task but would bring great problem-solving or creative energy.

A skills matrix can help you game plan. The Myers Briggs Type Indicator is also a great tool to balance the mix of personalities and work styles.

Use Technology

Clear communication, which is always important, is critical when people are working remotely and/or unaccustomed to working together. Mishandled messaging is an easy way to tie a project in knots and create resentment.

Technology offers plenty of support to prevent teams from playing telephone. Project management software such as Asana, Wrike, and Trello keep everyone apprised of responsibilities, benchmarks, and goals. Visual aids like Gantt charts, and Scrum and Kanban boards make it easy to organize work. Cloud sharing creates a single space where all participants can edit and access documents.

Real-time conversation, from anywhere, happens with Instant messaging apps. And, of course, there is Zoom. Over the last two years, these tools have grown smarter, and we have all become more experienced users.

Curate Culture

Just like larger organizations, small groups generate culture. Team leaders are the curators of those behaviors and norms. They set expectations for what is valued and what is not acceptable. Build trust among your group by:

  • Encouraging everyone’s participation. Make a point of gathering feedback from each person.
  • Promoting respectful listening. Discourage interruptions. Don’t allow the discussion to be dominated.
  • Replace “No, but” with “yes, and” to foster creative thinking and collaboration.

Ad hoc is the enemy of team development. Choose a facilitator, set regular meetings, use agendas, take minutes, and don’t forget to have fun. Make time and space for people to get to know each other. Schedule a team lunch or happy hour, and don’t discuss business.

Allow for Risk and Reversal

Cross-functional teams have the agility to respond quickly to changes in the environment. Maximize that capacity with ongoing evaluation of your goals against market realities. Encourage the team to use scenario planning and decision trees to evaluate data and take a calculated risk. Give them permission to iterate or redesign if circumstances are no longer favorable to the original plan.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are current priorities for most organizations. Learning to work in cross-functional teams is a lesson in using differences to grow. Multi-talented teams strengthen organizations and provide a hedge against disruption. Leaders who understand how to create a playground where teams build castles together will consistently grow an organization that is greater than the sum of its parts.   

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