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How to Kickstart Collaboration in Cross-Functional Teams

By John Wright on January 4, 2017

How to Kickstart Collaboration in Cross-functional Teams .jpgFrom encouraging creative problem-solving to eliminating company blind spots, cross-functional teams have been heralded as the workplace’s secret weapon.

The only problem? If you think managing typical teams is hard, creating a high-performing cross-functional team will challenge you even more. But when companies get cross-functional teams right, they’re rewarded in infinte ways. To ensure you’re getting the most bang for your team-building buck, use these three strategies to kickstart collaboration in your cross-functional teams.

1. Designate a Leader

Every team needs a leader, someone who is willing to take ownershipfor the team’s results, keep everything on track, and provide a final say on decisions. Cross-functional teams especially need strong leadership, because they’re generally more cumbersome (in size and/or scope) than regular teams.

Appoint a leader who is able to inspire the team and pull out each member’s brilliance—but who also isn’t afraid to do what it takes to keep team members accountable. Especially important for cross-functional team leaders is the ability to listen and consider new ideas; because the leader will be heading up a diverse group with different perspectives and knowledge bases, the leader needs to be comfortable admitting that they don’t have all the answers. Again, because leading cross-functional teams can present more of a challenge than most teams, consider putting your team’s leaders through leadership training that instills these qualities through practical, hands-on exercises.

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2. Encourage “Idle” Chitchat

Cross-functional teams can be harder to manage than interdepartmental teams, simply because members of cross-functional teams aren’t used to working with one another. They don’t know each other’s “tics” yet or how to best communicate.

The solution to this problem may seem too obvious—or even counterproductive—to some. Provide opportunities for your cross-functional team to engage in some good, old-fashioned chitchat. It may seem like a classic meeting time-waster, but sharing a few laughs and stories with one another during meetings builds a sense of camaraderie and helps team members get to know one another as people. As a result, they become more comfortable sharing ideas in a group, both work-related and not.

In fact, Carnegie Mellon researchers found that many teams that seemed to engage in time-wasting behavior—like talking over one another, interrupting during meetings, and going off on tangents—were actually top performers. What they were really exhibiting was a level of comfort and familiarity with one another, which bred an atmosphere where nobody was afraid to share ideas and everyone had a chance to speak. A few minutes of straying from the agenda each meeting can pay off big-time when it comes to fostering strong communication, creativity, and cohesion in cross-functional teams.

3. Incorporate Team-Building Activities That Actually Work

Creating a high-performing cross-functional team is a bit like cooking up a killer recipe. You can’t just throw all the ingredients together and expect it to taste good. You have to coax out the flavor, or in the case of teams, the brilliance that you know can result from bringing colleagues with different backgrounds and skill sets together. For cross-functional teams, that’s done through strategic team-building exercises that have a proven record of increasing team cohesion, decision-making, and communication.

From major off-site team development events that incorporate experiential learning to daily exercises that encourage collaboration and cooperation, focusing on effective team-building activities is crucial to the health of cross-functional teams, especially those that are going to be working together for a while. And don’t waste valuable time by only implementing team-building activities after your team starts to exhibit troubling behavior or results. Make team-building a priority from the get-go to get the most out of your cross-functional teams.

And finally, it’s important to remind your cross-functional team members that even though it feels like their loyalties lie with different departments, they’re all really working toward the same mission; improving the company as a whole. Working with members from other parts of the company is an incredible opportunity to see how you fit into the whole and how your seemingly small part makes the company tick. Reminding all members that they play for the same team is a major camaraderie-builder.

Have you successfully implemented cross-functional teams? If so, what strategies did you use to ensure all members worked well together?

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Since 1991, John has acquired extensive experience in the design and delivery of a diverse portfolio of programs. In addition to his executive responsibilities as President of Leadership and Learning Events, John is considered a valued partner to many executive teams. His insight and experience enable him to effectively diagnose, design, and implement complex culture change initiatives in a collaborative and engaging manner. Moreover, John’s experience in global implementations allows him to draw from a deep well of history to create unique and customized solutions. John’s passion for developing people makes him a sought after speaker, partner and coach and is evident in the high praise he receives from clients.

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