Cross-Functional Teams – Part Two

In a previous post, I discussed the need for cross-functional teams and gave a definition of a cross-functional team. In this post, I’ll talk about some best practices in implementing cross-functional teams.

Conditions for Success of Cross-functional teams

There are a number of factors that both the research and my experience suggest can increase the chances of success with cross-functional teams. Some of them are obvious, some less so.

Cross-Functional Governance

Cross-functional teams that succeed need strong governance according to research published in the Harvard Business Review. This is true because silos tend to perpetuate themselves and in many cases, the managers of these silos have a strong vested interest in retaining the status quo. Consciously or unconsciously, they often work to sabotage the cross-functional team.

Governance is not the same as support from upper management. It is not enough for management to cheer on the implementation of cross-functional teams. Managers from different cross-functional areas must themselves learn to work together to make tough decisions on the complex issues that arise in any cross-functional project. These managers need to contribute people to the cross-functional team and they need to have a vested interest in the success of the team. Otherwise, it is likely to fail.


In addition to top level, cross-functional governance, the team needs a single, mid-level manager who is the ultimate point of accountability for the project. That person may or may not be part of the team on a day to day basis, but they need to be available to make critical decisions or to escalate issues to the cross-functional governance team as necessary. For small projects, this role may be played by the Product Owner in  Scrum Methodology.

Larger teams typically have multiple product owners and need someone at a higher level to be accountable for the project. In the Spotify model, this role is fulfilled by the tribe leader. In the SAFe model, this role is fulfilled by Epic owners and by program management. I tend to prefer the model (and the representation) provided by the Hoshin Kanri X-Matrix, where a single person is responsible for the successful execution of a top level priority.

Clearly established scope, goals

Leaders who want to have success with cross-functional teams must establish clear scope and goals for each team. The scope and goals should be documented on one or two pages, with clarity around at least the following:

  • What problem is the customer trying to solve? How does solving this customer problem solve a problem for the business?
  • How frequently does the problem occur?
  • What triggers the problem? What is the first step that the customer takes in attempting to solve the problem? What is the final step?
  • What does success look like, both for the customer and for the business?
  • What is in scope and out of scope?
  • What is the budget? What resources are available?
  • What is the desired improvement time frame?

I have created a template for documenting the scope and goals for a team. You can download the template Scope and Charter spreadsheet.

Iterative approach with potentially shippable increments of work

This is Agile Marketing, so the team needs to take an iterative approach, producing frequent increments of work that can be shipped or shown to customers. This incremental approach helps the team test their hypotheses and helps them get early feedback on their work. It also helps them work together, discovering early and fixing any issues that must be addressed to ensure the success of the project.

I recommend that teams iterate at least monthly, if not bi-weekly or even weekly.

Members must identify more closely with their team than with their skill-set silos

Who team members identify with may seem like a strange predictor of success for a cross-functional team, but it turns out to be incredibly important. Skill-set silo teams inevitably have their own agendas and priorities, and if a team member continues to adhere to a different agenda and set of priorities, they are unlikely to put the success of the cross-functional team first. They may miss meetings, not complete work items on time (because they continue to work on other things for their skill-set silo team) and they may be reluctant to do work outside their skill-set to help the team.

Special care should be paid to creating a sense of camaraderie and adhesion among the cross-functional team, whether that be through team-building events or work experiences.

Getting Started

You’ll want to start with an important but not “risk the company” project
.  It may be a pure marketing project that requires different marketing disciplines (strategy, creative, personalization and analytics, for example) or it may be a project that requires contributions from disciplines in addition to marketing (product management, web development and finance, for example). The most important thing is that the team needs all of the skill sets necessary to produce a deliverable
.  They cannot have any dependencies that could delay the project.

Make sure that you form a cross-functional governance team of managers that are senior enough that they can resolve any cross-departmental issues.  You want to make sure that the managers of the silo teams have a stake in the success of the project.

Choose team members who work well in a team (think selecting astronauts living in the space station for six months)
.  Locate the team members together.  Do not let them keep their desks within their skill-set silo teams. You may have to give them some initial training on both Agile concepts and tools.  You may also want them to do some cross-training of each other.  In other words, the expert on personalization may want to train everyone else on the team on the basics of personalization such that other members of the team can pitch in and help on personalization tasks.

It also helps to choose for the team T-shaped people, who have both depth of expertise in their own area, but also respect for and preferably some knowledge of other disciplines as well. Or choose pi-shaped people who have both analytic (left-brain) and creative (right-brain) skills.  You may also want to cross-train people so that they can help each other when there is intense demand for a particular skill set.

Lastly, make sure that reviews and rewards are based on team performance, not individual performance, and make this clear up front.

Good luck with implementing cross-functional teams.  When implemented correctly, they can be game changing.

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