Cross-functional teams (XFT) are not really a new trend in corporate practice, and their added value is often discussed controversially. Among other things, this is due to the fact that this type of team must also pay particular attention to their team development process in order to work efficiently.
Definition of Cross-functional Teams
First, let’s establish a short definition of cross functional teams to make it clearer from which perspective we look at the topic of team building.
At OTRS, we understand cross-functional teams to be those made up of members from different departments of the company and, if necessary, external team members. They do not necessarily have the same “expert status,” rather they often have the opposite.
In addition, the teams formed in this way usually have a limited cooperation period. They pursue a fixed goal; once achieved, the team’s continued cooperation usually proves unnecessary. Alternatively, XFTs, initially planned for a limited period of time, sometimes result in permanent teams engaged in a continuous process of collaboration because they bring forward a topic of high relevance to the company.
XFTs could be counted as a kind of practical diversity, and it is precisely this diversity of attitude, background, knowledge and perspective that also holds the potential for success.
The Added Value of Using XFTs
The added value that we recognize or achieve from this form of cooperation has several aspects and is based on the fact that every single team member with his experience and knowledge takes a different perspective on the goal to be achieved. XFTs could be counted as a kind of practical diversity, and it is precisely this diversity of attitude, background, knowledge and perspective that also holds the potential for success. But their value is not found just in the higher quality results achieved, but also in the positive changes that happen at the employee level, such as higher commitment, trust in management, and ultimately, satisfaction.
But as said earlier, the added value of cross functional teams is often called into question. The most frequently mentioned factor for the failure of cross-functional teams is the lack of internal team cooperation. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to team building, allowing team members to master the challenges that these particularly heterogeneous groups face.
In fact, I have often noticed in the work of our cross functional teams that the collaboration experienced is extremely positive. The participating team members perceive the different perspectives as stimulating and instructive. However, this is just one factor in determining if the collaboration has been successful. The question is how can exchange and learning also be operationalized for the achievement of goals?
Cross-functional Team Building and Team Size
One would expect that, as the team size increases, it’s possible output would also increase. Yet, the opposite is actually true: in fact, studies show that up to 75% of cross-functional teams work inefficiently.
When researchers looked at why this happens, they attributed the cause to two reasons:
- Social loafing. This term was coined to describe situations in which people don’t contribute at their full capacity because they don’t have a good sense as to what level of contribution they should offer. This happens often in cross-functional teams because people aren’t familiar with one another’s roles, experience levels, authority, etc., so they hold themselves back from contributing fully as they wait for others to contribute.
- 2. More coordination needed. In order for teams to function at 100% capacity, all of its activities and inputs must be coordinated. Meetings need to be thought through and scheduled. Tasks need to be assigned. Opinions need to be evaluated. Processes changed. As the group size grows, so too do the number of inputs and considerations that need to be made. In cross-functional teams in particular, there is often not a natural leader, which can frequently leave the team fumbling through decisions and next steps.
Defining the optimal team size in advance is difficult, but there is a lot you can do to positively influence team dynamics and prevent teammates from losing motivation and enthusiasm.
Autonomy of the team and team task
Autonomy is of particular relevance to OTRS Group because we often work with virtual teams. The geographical distance largely excludes close guidance from being possible. This makes it all the more important that the nature of the team task and the group participants’ motivations are clear. We have found that team motivation increases if the task can be recognized as part of the entrepreneurial vision and mission, or at least derived from these.
It makes sense to first compile the basic conditions of the project before the team members are pulled together.
Clearly defined goals
Goal definition by cross functional teams deserves special attention and time in order to boost team building efforts.
It makes sense to first compile the basic conditions of the project before the team members are pulled together. A product charter, fixed budget, time frame and results to be achieved by the team complete the goal definition. After that, however, it is essential to break the goal down to the responsibilities of the individual team members, so that it becomes tangible to everyone and each understands what his or her contribution should be.
These definitions at the team and team member level help all participants to evaluate the status of the task to be completed – even during an ongoing process.
Strategy of task accomplishment
A real success factor is, for both the team and also the individual team members, thinking about how previous projects have been solved and the skills used to do so. This includes thinking about how tasks have been tackled so far, how solutions have been found and what was implemented successfully. The tension created between existing experiences and new challenges significantly supports team growth.
Using cross functional teams designed in this way has proven useful at OTRS Group, particularly in the area of product development. XFTs have made the development of new releases more transparent for many departments outside of the software development team. In return, the software development department has benefited from the involvement and the different perspectives cross functional teams have conveyed, making our new release much more user-oriented and based on input from both sales and consulting.
In addition, our experience with XFTs has provided an important impetus to reduce or prevent silo mentality/thinking.