Opinions on cross-functional teams are divided. While many project managers embrace them as diverse talent pools rich in knowledge, expertise, and experience, others wouldn’t touch them with a proverbial ten-foot pole.
According to a 2016 Harvard Business Review Study, three-quarters of these groups struggle with problems that prevent them from accomplishing their potential. Members come from different departments and levels in the organization (sometimes they are from outside the company), which can result in diminished commitment because they have few things in common with their project coworkers.
For example, if you were managing a product development team tasked with creating a travel app, members could include coders, interface designers, marketing personnel, and possibly researchers to identify popular destinations. Few of them work in the same department and, outside of projects, may not usually interact with one another. They have no history of shared successes, so there’s little if any team spirit.
While this is a valid concern, it’s no reason to dismiss the cross-functional approach entirely. When an experienced project manager has everyone working towards a common goal, team members come up with more creative solutions, thanks to the wide range of expertise and insights available. When used correctly, these teams can build a more creative atmosphere and provide a significant market advantage over the competition.
Here are some practical strategies for effectively managing your cross-functional team from initial assembly to successful project completion.
Define Goals Clearly
Even the most experienced and cross-compatible team will struggle if it doesn’t have any clear direction. Therefore, it is important to define project goals clearly and communicate them to everyone. Once they understand what is expected of them and what resources they have to work with, team members will be able to work with greater autonomy.
Connect Team Members Face to Face
All successful team collaborations are based on trust. The best way to create a quality professional relationship between members who may not have worked together in the past is to have regular face-to-face interaction, at least in the early stages of the project.
If some members work at a different location, try to schedule meetings in person or via video conferencing instead of phone or email, which tend to be impersonal. The potential for miscommunication also recedes when everyone can see one another and both facial expression and body language can clarify the meaning of any ambiguous statements.
Get Manager Buy-In
Although the team members are the ones who perform all project-related tasks, no cross-team venture will succeed for long without buy-in from their respective department heads. Some managers hesitate to loan out their best workers even temporarily, concerned that the employees’ primary responsibilities will suffer, and only do so under protest. When they are included in the team assembly process, it turns them from onlookers to active participants in the success of the project. Many of them may even take pride in their contribution to an undertaking that can benefit the company as a whole.
The frequency and quality of team communications can make or break any project. As a project manager, you need to be able to:
- Assign tasks and provide direction
- Regularly communicate status reports and any changes in resources or direction
When members of your cross-functional team are working in different areas of the building or even under an entirely different roof, communications need to be exceptionally clear and frequent. Don’t wait for milestones to be achieved or problems to arise before you make a status report available. When everyone is kept in the loop, you might receive some valuable feedback and advice that makes the project outcome even better.
Recognize a Job Well Done
When members of the team do exceptionally well, recognizing their efforts will make them feel valued and strengthen their commitment to the project and their co-workers. It may even be beneficial to include a reward system in your cross-functional team management strategy: when fairly applied, it can inspire output that’s even more stellar than anticipated. Everyone likes to feel good about themselves, and recognition and reward are two ways to do it.
Cultivate a Shared Success Strategy
Cross-functional teams consist of different people with equally different goals. If they’ve never worked together before, they may be inclined to focus their creativity and efforts on their assigned tasks and have little interest or investment in the outcome of the project as a whole.
This is where you as the project manager have to stop in. It’s fine for team members to take pride in their work, but you should encourage ownership of the project itself by reminding everyone that success is measured by the quality of the final deliverables and not the individual tasks.
Use the Right Online Tools
As repeatedly stated throughout this article, strong communication is the key to effective management of cross-cultural teams. When people from different departments are working on separate aspects of the project at the same time, coordinating and overseeing their efforts can be done more efficiently by using project management tools and software.
Toggl Plan is a popular choice among project managers who need help in effectively coordinating their cross-functional teams. Features include:
- Color-coded timelines and schedules that are both quick and easy to decipher
- Powerful tools that facilitate collaboration and communication.
- A Gantt chart alternative that makes it easier to organize the team
- Visual roadmaps that give everyone, even remote workers, an accurate progress overview
The ability to access all important details in one central location keeps everyone on the same page, allowing for quick action if a change in direction is ever necessary.
For many companies, cross-functional teams serve as hubs for creativity and innovation. When the members work well together, the results can be outstanding. Effective management means finding the perfect formula for your team’s unique requirements while emulating the habits of successful intra-department workgroups. Use the tips listed above to tap into the creative minds at your disposal and make them shine, individually and as a team.
Rose Keefe is an author and technical writer who has over ten years’ experience in supporting project managers in the manufacturing and construction sectors. One of her primary responsibilities was developing product manuals that supported efficient use of industrial equipment. She continues to write on the subject of time management and commercial productivity for trade websites and publications.