Cross-Functional Teams: What They Are and How to Build One
Feb 4, 2020
Do you know what’s common between tech giants like Google, Netflix, Facebook, and Amazon? They’ve all adopted a cross-functional approach. Do you understand why? Every company has people with different skills. However, leveraging these skills isn’t an easy task. Cross-functional teams help in taking full advantage of different skill sets. Not only that, but they also enable better use of resources.
So, in this post, we’re going to discuss what cross-functional teams are. Apart from the definition, we’ll discuss the benefits, then move on to how to build a cross-functional team. Not only that, we’ll look at the risks of moving to a cross-functional approach and how to fix those risks. So, why wait? Let’s begin.
What Are Cross-Functional Teams?
Have you been inside a restaurant’s kitchen? If the restaurant is big, you’ll find multiple people inside the kitchen. One person does the dishes, another person the vegetables, one more person does the cooking, and so on. Their goal is the same: to prepare food for the customers. But each of them performs a different task. A cross-functional team is no different.
A cross-functional team consists of a group of people, each with their own set of skills. The team members may belong to the finance, IT, human resources, or marketing domains. But their goal is common. People from different areas bring their knowledge, experience, and expertise together. Different teams work together to achieve success.
However, you may wonder, what’s the reason behind a cross-functional team? People can work alone to achieve their goals. Well, to understand the reason, let’s head on to the next section.
Benefits of Cross-Functional Teams
Back in the old days, the waterfall model was prevalent. At that time, people thought that departmental boundaries initiated discipline. Currently, now that agile dominates the industry, you still need to have defined roles to reduce chaos. But silos will only hamper growth. For constant innovation, you need to have an “all hands on deck” method in place. For instance, let’s think of how CI/CD works. In CI/CD, the development and operations teams collaborate to make delivery faster.
Cross-functional teams merge different work styles and eliminate repetitions. The team keeps the product interesting and provides the best to the customers. On that note, let’s check out some striking benefits of cross-functional teams.
1. Team Members Learning Each Other’s Skills
The expansion of skill sets imparts value to the employees of a company. When people possessing different skills come together, they’re bound to catch up with some additional specialties. This way, they can expand their skill sets.
This will also help make their knowledge base better. Sometimes, learning how to use a tool that another department uses can be of great benefit. Other teams can incorporate this into their work. This will help speed up processes that took up a lot of time to perform manually.
Let’s understand this from an agile point of view. In agile, developers take part in unit testing, thus improving their testing skills. On the other hand, testers also take part in debugging, thus improving their knowledge about the code.
2. Better Communication Skills and Enhanced Employee Engagement
Connection and conversation between employees have the power to make or break a company. Did you work on a project having a waterfall model? If yes, you may have experienced how lack of conversation created a barrier between developers and testers. During the testing phase, developers and testers might have started to blame each other, thus impacting teamwork and bonding.
But in a cross-functional team, since people of different skill sets and domains all work to achieve a single goal, engagement improves a lot among the team members.
And we know what that means—better learning from others’ strengths and enhanced sharing of valuable feedback!
3. Better Management Skills
There’s a high chance that conflict may arise between people with opposing opinions. As we already know, in a cross-functional team, people from different domains come together. Employees with different work styles might have to work on a single entity.
When you’re working with different people, you put your management skills to the test. When more people come together, there are more things to deal with. For instance, two developers may suggest different procedures to do a task. In that case, you have to listen to both of them and provide a neutral opinion. Not only that, you must ensure that whatever you decide pleases both of them. This sharpens your ability to manage things.
Now that we know why we need a cross-functional team, let’s discuss how to build one.
How to Create Cross-Functional Teams
Creating cross-functional teams isn’t always straightforward. You have to set some parameters and follow defined steps to achieve this. On that note, let’s take a look at how to create cross-functional teams.
1. Have a Clear Definition of the Purpose
To instill a positive work environment, team members must know the true purpose of cross-functional teams. If you don’t make it all clear in advance, some teams will be unable to do their best in order to fulfill a task. As a result, this can put a pause on the company’s growth.
For instance, suppose you’re leading a web development project. Your team has an automation tester who needs to know both Jest and Jasmine. What if they have in-depth knowledge in Jasmine only? If you make it clear how their role is important for the project’s success, they’ll get motivated. As a result, they’ll strengthen their skills in Jest and implement them, thus improving the delivery speed with speedy testing.
So, break down the barriers in advance by maintaining transparency. This way, everyone commits to the end goal. At the same time, they’ll all strive toward the progress of the company.
2. Establish Demarcated and Clear Roles
Cross-functional teams bring together diversity. But so many people from different departments can cause chaos if they aren’t clear on what to do. In that case, all team members need to stick to their roles. At the same time, they must learn from others’ work styles and expand their skill base.
For instance, suppose you have two back-end developers. They both must know individual tasks and what the other one is doing. Not only that, they should check each other’s working styles. What if one of them finds out that the other one has a certain weakness? Then that person must help the respective team member to get over their shortcomings.
Thus, this approach will prevent conflicts and repetitions. If people don’t know what they’re supposed to do, multiple team members might end up doing the same task. Of course, we know that’s a waste of time and effort!
3. Build Healthy Relationships
No group can work as a cohesive unit if they have a strained relationship among them. Also, this can cause a lack of trust. This ultimately leads to negative behavior that can undermine progress. The overall performance of a company declines.
For instance, suppose there’s some conflict between the development and testing teams. There’s a new bug raised by the testing team. We can also consider another scenario: the development team just fixed a bug. In such scenarios, bug reporting or marking the bug as fixed will require a great deal of requesting and even escalations. The worst case will happen when both the teams start blaming each other.
The first step is to introduce team members to each other via face-to-face meetings. Then, let them engage in activities not related to work. For example, you can organize team parties or a game of paintball. This will help people bond socially. This also enhances interaction and results in better transparency between those sharing a common target.
4. Use Automation Wherever Possible
Nowadays, when agile is dominating the software industry, clients want faster delivery. You may wonder what the role of a cross-functional team is in this. With a cross-functional team, you can utilize the benefit of people with different skill sets working for a common goal. But situations may arise when a team member has to work on multiple repetitive tasks. What’s the solution to save time in that case? You guessed it correctly. Automation! You can complete repetitive tasks like regression testing or continuous delivery with automation.
For instance, suppose you have multiple releases scheduled in a short time span. You can take a look at Plutora’s release management tool. The tool will help you to schedule releases per order and manage approvals. Not only that, with this tool, you can track dependencies while maintaining compliance.
The steps sound quite easy, right? Well, there are some drawbacks. Having a cross-functional team has a lot of benefits for your project, but there are some risks as well. Let’s find out what those are.
Risks/Difficulties in Moving to a Cross-Functional Approach
We can all agree that cross-functional teams provide immense benefits for companies. So, why doesn’t everyone adopt this approach? Why is it so difficult to manage? Let’s take a look at some risks or difficulties in moving to a cross-functional approach.
1. A Feeling of “Crossing My Territory” Among Employees
The cross-functional approach isn’t easy to adopt for some. Not everyone will understand why there’s suddenly an absence of defined authority. Moreover, some can be possessive of others entering their territory. So, what’s the result of this? Increased insecurity. And we know that insecurity is the root of all evil! Well, if not all, at least most of it.
The reluctance to embrace a change won’t do you any good. But if everyone makes an effort to learn about new ways of working and using new tools, the problem will solve itself.
2. Conflicting Goals or Lack of a Goal
Suppose you just fixed a defect that needs to be deployed right now. But the deployment team says they can’t deploy the code and you need to wait for the next release schedule.
Do you know the feeling when the other team says that a certain task isn’t a priority for them? It’s frustrating, isn’t it? Knowing that something can directly affect the revenue, yet the other party fails to realize it. This can happen due to conflicting goals or the absence of any goal at all.
Aligning goals and sharing with everyone are the only ways to solve this problem. Automated continuous deployment is an ideal solution in this scenario. You can take a look at Plutora’s solution. Plutora’s software delivery ecosystem will help you with your task without any manual dependency.
3. Ambiguity in Understanding Others’ Roles
Even when everyone in a team has a common goal, knowing your role isn’t enough in a cross-functional scenario. Suppose a demo is scheduled with a stakeholder. You’re showing the features of your app, but suddenly the stakeholder asks you about another feature. What if you’re unaware of the feature? In the worst case, what if you don’t know who developed that feature? You must be aware of your team members’ work to handle such situations.
Focusing on your assignments reduces chaos. But it’s also important to have an idea about the roles of other people involved. You should know what the other people on your team are doing. This enables synchronized working.
4. Too Little or Too Much Communication
Now, we’ve established that communication is the key to the success of cross-functional teams. So, it’s time to get into the details of it. There should be a balance in communication.
I’ll share my personal experiences to help you understand this scenario. A few years ago, I was working on a project that followed the waterfall model. We rarely had any meetings with the client’s business analyst. In the end, before delivery, guess what we found out? There were many features that the client wanted to add, but the business analyst didn’t get a chance to tell us. We also faced another scenario where we had three status meetings scheduled daily. Each of the meetings continued for hours. Thus, we spent productive hours in meetings instead of working.
So what did we learn? Too little or too much communication is harmful.
5. Lack of Methods to Measure Impact
If you’re investing in resources, it’s important to justify their use. Thus, it’s important to measure the work of cross-functional teams. This method helps in calculating important business results and analyzing participation. Before a project starts, determine how you plan to measure impacts. It also helps in recognizing the contributors and giving due credit. If you’re having a problem with task assignment and planning, you can take a look at Plutora’s solution for analytics and reporting. You’ll get a real-time report of an individual task or the entire project along with the risk evaluation and release schedule.
Stay Ahead of the Crowd With Cross-Functional Teams
New businesses are coming up every day. Do you realize what that means? More competition! Like it wasn’t fierce enough already. Anyway, as time goes by, this competition will only become more intense. Will you ever find a company that doesn’t want to stay at the peak? It doesn’t seem likely. Thus, firms need to make a change and incorporate the concept of cross-functional teams.
And of course, don’t think that there won’t be barriers. After all, every implementation comes with hurdles. But you need to remember that nothing will be a lost cause. There’s a solution to every problem. If you’re passionate about getting some killer problem-solving methods, cross-functional teams are your holy grail.
Conventional teams can do a job just fine. But cross-functional teams level it up to fantastic. So, are you ready to reap the infinite rewards of this approach? What are you waiting for? Build cross-functional teams in your company and unleash the true potential of your business.