Industry Insights

The Challenges of Creating a Diverse Cross Functional Team

Posted by John Wills on Apr 27, 2023 10:34:24 AM

What is a cross functional team?

A cross functional team comprises members with a range of skills and expertise, working together on a shared goal. It involves employees from different levels of the organization to create both breadth and depth of expertise.

Cross functional teams put the benefits of diversity into practice: a range of perspectives and backgrounds create the environment for new ideas to be synthesized – as long as there is leadership in place to enable free expression from team members of all levels of seniority.

How do cross functional teams differ from traditional models?

A traditionally structured team may include a group of specialists working in a single area: for instance, a tech support department that employs a group of IT experts. In many contexts, such a team structure makes sense. But most of us will have experienced examples of dealing with a colleague from a specialist department within our organization, and struggling to communicate our needs to that colleague, or struggling to understand the details of their work. This points to an immediate benefit of a cross functional team: the development of shared understanding of a business function.

Cross functional teams include members with expertise in different areas, from diverse backgrounds. Within that team, a body of knowledge is generated that enables a deeper and more connected understanding of how different parts of the organization interact.

What does a good cross functional team leader look like?

In an ideal scenario, a cross functional team sees every member bringing their unique set of skills and perspectives to bear on a task, taking time to listen to each of their team members’ contributions, and working towards innovative solutions through collaboration and consensus.

Unfortunately, human nature makes such a scenario the exception rather than the rule, at least without the right interventions from a skilled leader.

None of the benefits of cross functional and diverse teams will materialize unless a leader is in place who can encourage the open, honest sharing of ideas, and fair opportunities for every team member to have their voice heard.

The ideal leader of a cross functional team doesn’t just issue orders to their team. It is someone who can facilitate cooperation and consensus and mediate disputes that can arise due to the diverse range of points of view within the team. And, most importantly, the ideal leader of a good cross functional team gives credit to their team members for that cooperation and the positive results that follow from it, while accepting that they are responsible for the smooth functioning of the collaborative process.

Who should be in your cross functional team?

Diversity is an undeniable asset for a cross functional team. But there’s much more to it than simply making your team as diverse as possible.

Team members should be chosen for the specific expertise that they bring to the project: expertise that is relevant to the team’s goals, but which also provides a wider contextual understanding of how those goals relate to the overarching objectives of the organization.

However, effective members of cross functional teams need certain personal attributes, too. A willingness to listen and learn from others as well as willingness to assert their own point of view – even when it diverges from the opinions of the rest of the group – are foremost among those attributes.

Recruiting your cross functional team

It can be difficult to find team members who already possess all the right expertise and personal attributes for your cross functional team. However, these attributes can be acquired by existing employees, given the right training. Experiential learning gives employees opportunities to develop these attributes and, importantly, to experience the benefits that come from working collaboratively.

What are the benefits of being a member of a diverse, cross functional team?

Being exposed to differing viewpoints is far more stimulating than being in a siloed department. The collaborative aspect of cross functional teams also provides employees with a greater sense of ownership for the team’s achievements.

This helps employees build a stronger bond with their organization, encouraging more commitment, more productivity and greater employee retention.

Cross functional teams are effective in organizations of all sizes

Small and medium enterprises are often cross functional simply due to their size: rather than departments comprising several people overseeing a function of the organization, small organizations are likely to entrust that business function to an individual. And that individual will work closely with colleagues who look after different business functions, creating a de-facto cross functional team.

In larger organizations, cross functional teams benefit from economies of scale, a cross functional team can operate as a semi-independent unit within the organization. Such working groups are able to undertake major projects and are sometimes entrusted with important decision-making power, letting them make significant decisions with relatively light-touch oversight from senior management.

The risks and challenges of cross functional teams

There are very obvious risks to empowering a group within your organization to make important decisions with long-term implications for the entire business.

One way of building trust in the effectiveness of such cross functional teams is by practicing decision-making in a safe, controlled environment. Business simulations are lifelike scenarios in which teams can do just that.

Using business simulations, organizations can identify the employees who are best suited to leading cross functional teams, and can nurture the skills required for effective collaboration in all members of that team.

Groupthink versus diversity

Groupthink is the phenomenon of a group of people from similar backgrounds and with similar experiences following their ingrained assumptions and making decisions that are not informed by a balanced view of reality.

Decisions arrived at through groupthink can be disastrous, because when decision-makers have a blinkered understanding of the outcomes of their decision, they will fail to see pitfalls that would be obvious to any outside observer.

Groupthink is a risk for teams with deep specialist knowledge, but limited breadth of knowledge. It is also easy to fall victim to; even when there are dissenting voices within a team, these voices can be easily drowned-out by the group, if they dare speak-up at all.

Simply having team members from a diverse set of backgrounds is insufficient for defending against groupthink. Team leaders must be adept at encouraging healthy debate between those team members. They must ensure that all members of the team are confident that their input will be valued, even if this input creates challenges for the rest of the team.

Taking part in realistic business simulations gives teams and team leaders the opportunity to find out how they interact and react to such situations, in a safe, controlled environment.

Keeping a diverse team on track with SMART goals and objectives

When a group of people with differing perspectives begin working together, they are likely to each bring their own set of goals and priorities to the team. This can be a source of friction from the outset, and the problem is exacerbated if the team’s goals are not clearly defined.

Therefore, leaders of cross functional teams should set out goals according to SMART criteria, goals that are:

  • Specific: everyone should understand the desired results
  • Measurable: clear indicators of progress are available for all to see
  • Achievable: there should be a clear path to the fulfilment of the goal
  • Relevant: between them, team members have the expertise and resources required
  • Time-bound: time limits are set within which each stage of the process should be completed

Start building stronger, more diverse cross functional teams today

Here are a few simple steps to get started with building a diverse, cross functional team:

  • Identify the goal or project that your team will work on
  • Identify the people in your organization whose skills and knowledge will be an asset in achieving that goal
  • Provide training to potential team members so that they have confidence in their abilities and those of their teammates
  • Through training and simulations, discover who within your organization has the personal attributes required to lead your cross functional team to success
  • Ensure that your team is clear in their goals and your expectations, allow them to use their skills and knowledge to create a strategy towards achieving those goals
  • While allowing the team a suitable level of autonomy, regularly monitor their progress towards the desired results

If you would like to know more about how experiential learning through StratX Exl’s business simulations can help create stronger cross functional teams, contact us today!

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