This is just one example of the dysfunction that exists in cross-functional teams. In a detailed study of 95 teams in 25 leading corporations, chosen by an independent panel of academics and experts, I found that nearly 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional. They fail on at least three of five criteria: 1.) meeting a planned budget; 2.) staying on schedule; 3.) adhering to specifications; 4.) meeting customer expectations; and/or 5.) maintaining alignment with the company’s corporate goals.
This article is from Harvard Business Review, and there’s a bit of an up-sell throughout it — the guy writing it keeps talking about his research and his case studies and all that. He comes off as wanting more to showcase what he does than actually solve this cross-functional team problem for organizations, and that’s sad — although, that’s how a lot of business writing is in the modern age. (“Content marketing” is really the same as “Everyone trying to sell something, be it product or themselves.”)
I’ve been on a dozen+ cross-functional teams in my life, which at full extension is 34 years and at professional extension is about 12. Cross-functional teams are almost completely and entirely bullshit. For them to work, they require truly excellent leadership, which I think we all know is pretty rare. The reason they require that is simple: silos. People are trained to believe that their deliverables matter more than the broader org deliverables; that’s why these teams break down. Marketing is chasing one thing; IT and HR are chasing other things. Everyone believes their thing is the thing that matters.
It’s essentially a breakdown of empathy. This shouldn’t surprise us; we see this in the broader world every day.
The guy who wrote this article recommends four things to make cross-functional teams actually work:
- End-to-end accountable leader
- Clear goals
- The success of the project should be the main goal
- Constantly re-evaluate
These things all seem fairly logical, right? Oftentimes they make a lot of sense to people — especially at conferences where you’re listening to great speakers — but the thing is, they die in the flood at The Temple Of Busy. People get back to their office and instead of stopping and thinking, “Whoa, for this project to work, we could use an end-to-end accountable leader…,” they think “Whoa, I need to answer this e-mail or run to my 1:45 or chase my next deliverable.” This is why I firmly believe that daily deliverables murdered the idea of strategy.
If you want a “cross-functional” team to work, then, I honestly think the No. 1 thing you need to do is find the most empathetic, sincere, people-first person in a low-level managerial role at your company … and hand the project over to him or her. You can call it “a stretch assignment” if you want, although that’s also a BS term.
The thing is, you can’t have a hard-driving, Type-A dude running a cross-functional team. He’s just going to be chasing deliverables, and he’s going to be prioritizing the parts of the team (“the functions”) that are more tied to revenue. That’s how people think. That team will break down in mistrust and unclear goals within about 2-3 meetings.
Working with people is really complicated a lot of the time: they have different emotions and ideas and concepts and connections to work. My question always remains: when it’s already hard enough, why do we spend so much time over-complicating it even more?