Building Cross-Functional Teams

A cross-functional team in an agency can take many forms. 

These teams are small groups of individuals that cross formal or informal functional departmental boundaries and levels of hierarchy. The group is created to commit to a common purpose or goal, typically formed for a project, program or by client; the team acts and works as one unit. They communicate frequently, cooperating and providing mutual support, coordinating activities, drawing upon and exploiting the skills and capabilities from each other, while considering the needs of individual members.

Cross-functional teams are formed on the assumption that a small group is better able to accomplish a creative project than individuals acting alone or in a large, permanently structured group. The belief is that cross-functional teams, improve the quality of the outcome and become committed to see the project through to the end.

Cross-functional teams can be formed in a number of ways;

  • They can stretch across all project phases and include, strategy, business analysis, project management, designers, creatives, developers or technologists to name a few.
  • They can work together as a unit full-time, meet once, or meet on a regular basis.
  • Cross-functional teams can network together in smaller groups.
  • Individuals in the team can bring in additional experts or network with the other specialists to bring back new learnings.
  • They can be directed by a project manager, be self-organized or have facilitated delegation of tasks.

When teams work in groups that are multi-disciplined, they can bring together a wide range of knowledge, experience and problem solving skills to the table that enable projects to be tackled with multiple perspectives and thinking. The value of cross-functional teams can be invaluable in enabling agility in your firm.

To build cross-functional teams we need to support them not only on the organization level, but to guide them through the stages of team formation so that they can become high-performing. 

These teams work best when;

  • They share a common vision,and are committed to achieving a common purpose.
  • They share leadership roles as well as responsibility for processes, project progress and outcomes.
  • They are both individually and mutually accountable to each other and to their collective performance.
  • They agree on a common way of working, establishing rules of engagement with each other in how they will contribute to the team’s efforts.
  • Every member displays respect, trust and openness to each other, and encourage open communication, exploring each others ideas and have an active problem-solving approach that is transparent between all team members.
  • They are dedicated to doing the best job they can at all levels.
  • They can assess their own collective progress and work and will help each other to complete the final outcome.
  • The firm supports them with systems, structures and frameworks that allow them to work in this fashion.

The idea of establishing cross-functional teams is simple, it is to create a flat-structured way of working in a creative firm that ignores hierarchical structures and constraints. As your agency grows, you can build additional dedicated teams to scale your agency, without having the baggage of creating lots of unnecessary levels. Working in cross-functional teams creates a peer environment, where they can share their knowledge to improve the overall level of decision-making. Building teams in your agency can create flexibility, as they can come together quickly, work and complete projects, they are not limited to a particular set of skills or roles and can be redeployed as projects come to completion.

Because the team has shared goals, they team shares in achieving those goals. No one is left behind, and if an area of the team is weak, it can be quickly identified and supplemented. 

Project managers can play an important role in cross-functional team structures as well. They can help establish goals and help the team set priorities, and manage project constraints. They act as the main provider of information and can help the team seek out unanswered questions, or unclear information. They can help the team through the formation process, and analyze, measure and report on individual abilities, training or skill issues. They can also participate in creative team problem solving or conflict resolution and contribute their own technical or functional experience with the team. Project managers can help the team make decisions, by using a range of learning problem solving techniques. They can coach, mentor and help team members with interpersonal issues.

Cross-functional teams can work under a range of project management methodologies, however they work best when they are given real self-organizing responsibility. Creative firm management can support these teams by providing them with the structure, processes and culture they need in order to strive. Agency leadership can also support the teams by ensuring the right team make-up, by selecting appropriate team members, and building frameworks that ensure strong team startups and common goal and expectation setting.

Selecting the right combination of team members

When building a cross-functional team you need to seek a balance. Complementary skills, diversity of thinking are certainly important. However, to get the right mix, you need to ensure the team has all of the technical or functional expertise it needs to accomplish its goals. Too often, agencies find themselves having one very strong “A” team and then several weaker “B” teams. While there can be a reason for this imbalance (finding talent, cost & profitability), it is in your best interest to make all of your teams have “A” level players. 

“A” team players not only have the technical expertise you need, but they have strong problem-solving and decision making skills. They can evaluate options, identify problems early on and have the ability to proceed in a proactive manner. In building teams we can not ignore compatibility or lack of interpersonal skills of any group or individual. Teams may need to be tweaked to get the right combination of temperament, personal and communication styles. What we can’t do is set a team off alone without watching them for conflicts at the forming stage. We need to be able to correct bad behavior and intervene at the earliest opportunities if there are problems, as interpersonal issues only build as people become disgruntled with each other.

As your firm continues to work in a cross-functional team manner, it’s going to be easy to identify people that work well together and that want to work together. That’s okay, as long as they remain an “effective unit.” We also want to balance the size of the team to the project. Too few members on a team, or too few good functioning team members on a team isn’t optimal, since they may not have all the necessary skills or creativity to accomplish tasks in short time periods. Too large of a group (over ten) and you will start to automatically see smaller groups form. That’s ok if people come together for progress meetings and coordinate decision making, but it may require strong project coordination. However, if the team becomes to large, you are going to need to break the project out into smaller groups, otherwise you lose the benefits of self-organization.

Cross-functional team roles

While cross-functional teams can work under different methodologies, there are some common roles that may get split out differently.

Project Champion - This is your team sponsor, and ensures that the project has the resources need to complete the project, and will work to remove barriers on the team’s behalf. Typically, they are outside member of the team, but will participate in key review meetings

Team Leader - This role is responsible for the basic team organization, setting of engagement rules, working frameworks and coordination. They set the tone for how the group is going to work, the ground rules. They are also responsible for ensuring that the team has an environment where everyone contributes and shares in project leadership. Leadership can be a shared responsibility, however even self-organizing teams will teeter on issues of power. At the forming stages of a team, team leadership can be very important so that the team achieves a higher-level of working where they can ultimately be self-leading.

Team Coach - They help the team stay on track, facilitate when needed and direct or redirect the team back to the project’s purpose. They guide team members through problem-solving, communication and interpersonal issues. They tend to facilitate and observe rather than direct. They help to ensure the team dynamics are positive and constructive.

Team Information Keepers - This can be a share role, where everyone contributes to communication, notes or decision making notification, or it can be part of the project management process.

Team Members - These are all of the people that participate on the teams, who choose or accept tasks. They can be self-assigned or assigned by the team leader.

Team Charters take on different forms in Creative Organizations

Creative agencies really don’t utilize this tool. In traditional project management, team charters are a combination of a brief, as well as a written form of rules of the road, authority setting and metrics by which the team will be evaluated. Instead, we work with scopes of work, and briefs (or stories) established agency process, values and often informal rules for working. However, setting the stage at the project kick-off to decide and establish all of this is important. While we may be informal about certain things, the group should establish a way of working from the get go.

The biggest issue that needs to be addressed for any project is to determine the projects goal or outcomes. Desired outcomes need to be clear and worthwhile. Teams need the motivation of goal setting even if the project is small. Otherwise people become disengaged. It can’t be too narrow that there is no room left for the team to think creatively or have team spirit. If we don’t care about the project and it’s outcome, then neither will our teams.

Team Start-ups

Team and project goal setting is just one of the factors that makes for an effective start-up. Don’t start up a team unless you are ready to devote time to set it off right. A little time socializing or group thinking activity to start with is important to develop a team bond during the early start of the project. Team’s need socialization to create a sense of oneness. If I don’t care about the people in my team or if others feel like they are outsiders from the start, it can be very hard to overcome these issues later on.

When you have your start up meeting, set the round rules. Let people know how often they are going to meet, when and for how long. Set how meetings are going to be run, so people can get started right away. Set rules for how people are going to interact, or what tools they are going to use together for collaboration or sharing of ideas / concepts / assets. Set some accountability for the team, let them know what’s expected and when. If you are the team coach, let them know it, and tell the team how they can approach you if they have problems or issues. Finally, set what consensus means or how the team is going to resolve or conduct large decision making.