Cross-functionality may be all the rage for agile software development teams, but the inventor of this unique structure wasn’t a coder; the pioneer of cross-functionality was the CEO of Northwestern Mutual Life insurance. In the 1950s, business owners such as himself were uncertain of how computers would impact the world, so he assembled the first documented cross-functional team to find out. His innovation paid off. The team of financial, actuarial, and investment professionals soon became the first information systems department in history, bringing Northwestern Mutual Life insurance a massive competitive edge.
You might be wondering, what exactly is a cross-functional team? In short, a cross-functional team is one comprised of individuals with different skill sets, often from separate departments and levels within a company, working together towards a common goal. With the right people, the right setup, and the right approval management software to streamline the workflow, cross-functional teams can bring incredibly innovative results. This structure is common in software development companies. Many applications require input from a range of specialists, and gaining the necessary experience in every area would be an impossible feat for one person (or one department).
Benefits Of Cross-Functional Teams
There’s a reason cross-functionality has grown so popular; when diverse minds come together, they can accomplish extraordinary things. This isn’t to say combining people from different professional backgrounds won’t present any challenges – but with the help of approval management software, the benefits far outweigh the costs.
Cross-functional teams are the antonym of work silos. Silos occur when departments within an organization function almost entirely independently, without sharing information or best practices. This structure all but bans a company from innovating; silos lend themselves to mishandled resources, a lack of communication, and an us vs. them mentality. Cross-functional teams solve the silo problem. By bringing different departments together, they can share resources in more efficient ways, communicate different perspectives, and create a culture of collaboration.
We tend to get caught in our own worldview when working in a silo, limiting our ability to think outside the box. Creativity can’t happen in a vacuum; ideas build off of one another, and allowing for more diverse perspectives exponentially increases the potential to innovate. What’s more, those innovations carry over. Cross-functional teams often find a better way to work together than the company’s standard, and they can take those findings back to their departments or even train other cross-functional teams.
Grows Individual Skills
The benefits of bringing diverse minds together transfer to the individual as well; working with people outside of your area of expertise is an excellent opportunity to learn something new. In addition, these small, agile teams can build leadership skills. Every team member owns their part of the project – they make the decisions, delegate the tasks, and are the primary point of contact for their domain. Working with and learning from people dissimilar from themselves also provides a route for employees to build empathy for their coworkers; people tend to judge others more fairly when they understand the challenges they face.
Fosters Productivity and Flexibility
Part of the success of these teams stems from the increased level of engagement, as each member has a personal stake in the project. According to a Gallup report, this doesn’t just impact the employee; an engaged workforce increases profitability by a whopping 21%. When people work together, they work better.
Another way cross-functionality increases productivity is by combining the most effective parts of each department. Each team member understands their sector’s strengths and weaknesses, and since the other team members likely have different strong suits, they can take the best from each.
Cross-functional teams are also able to be far more flexible than traditional teams. Coordinating multiple departments is a lot like herding cats, chaotic. Different sectors of a company can have entirely different communication systems, finding times where all relevant department heads can meet is close to impossible, and the entire process is rife with administrative red tape. With cross-functional teams, all of the necessary players are working towards a shared goal together, making coordinating team members much easier. This allows for a quicker turnaround on projects, meaning these teams can bring innovations to the market faster than otherwise possible.
Drawbacks Of Cross-Functional Teams
While cross-functional teams have the power to transform the way businesses operate for the better, that’s only the case when they have the resources and alignment needed. Without the right tools, these teams can end up just as disorganized and difficult to manage as traditional teams – entirely negating the benefits they were built for in the first place.
One of the biggest pitfalls of cross-functional teams is a lack of alignment in goals. We tend to prioritize the tasks that determine how we are measured, rewarded, and punished. Cross-functional team projects aren’t always factored into employee reviews, providing little incentive for team members to go above and beyond. What’s more, many employees feel a loyalty to their departments. Whether that loyalty is conscious or not, people tend to act in the best interest of their sector, not necessarily in the best interest of the company.
Another challenge cross-functional teams pose is communication, or more accurately, lack thereof. To start, employees may hesitate to trust people they’ve never worked with before, and that lack of trust can cause significant problems down the line. Even if the team does trust one another, they still may be accustomed to different methods of communication, requiring some members to learn new platforms as they go.
Building Successful Cross-Functional Teams With Approval Management Software
Building a cross-functional team is a lot like organizing a group of fresh onboards; there’s little precedent, a new hierarchy, and teammates may be total strangers. However, the difficulties this presents can almost entirely be overcome with proper planning and approval management software.
The first step in building a successful cross-functional team is finding the right people. Team members should be highly skilled, highly motivated self-starters. And of course, they need to work well with others; no one wants to work with someone rude, demanding, or close-minded.
Once you’ve found the best people for the job, the next step is to designate roles. Unlike a traditional team where one manager is the point person for all major decisions, in cross-functional teams, each member is the primary decision-maker for their area of expertise. That being said, even cross-functional teams tend to accomplish more with a group leader, someone to make the hard choices when teammates are at odds.
With the right approval management software, you can remove any confusion around responsibilities by defining them in the application itself. On Ashore, this looks like assigning senders, approvers, and non-approvers to each stage of the workflow, ensuring that everyone knows what they are expected to do every step of the way.
Cross-functional projects are meant to accomplish a goal; however, people need to understand what the goal is in order to reach it. It can be helpful to set the primary goal at the start of a project, make a timeline with supporting goals and milestones, and clarify who is the point person for each. Providing team members with a roadmap allows them to work more autonomously; everyone knows what they are trying to achieve, and everyone knows the steps necessary to get there.
It’s best practice to include every team member during the goal-setting process; when people have a sense of ownership over a goal, they can feel empowered working towards it. Plus, if a goal is unrealistic, you want your teammates to feel safe saying so before it’s too late. On that note, timelines for a cross-functional team may need to be frequently altered; novelty and innovation are the defining characteristics of cross-functionality, and those characteristics are hard to plan for.
Teams need to regularly reassess their smaller goals to ensure they are moving the project towards the primary goal. This is another area where approval management software can come in handy. Each stage in the workflow should have a checklist detailing everything team members need to look for before approving. By framing these things around the end goal, you can rest assured that the work is leading in the right direction.
Use Project Management Tools
Employees can’t be all that effective if they don’t have the support of upper management. Without buy-in from the company, there’s nothing to keep a project on track. For a team to have a fighting chance, they need support – and one of the best ways employers can support cross-functional teams is by opting for approval management software. By removing the unnecessary busywork (such as reminding teammates to review, organizing documents, and clarifying vague feedback), this technology enables teams to focus less on the repetitive administrative tasks and more on the work itself.
In most cross-functional situations, team members are working on different pieces of the project simultaneously, which can make progress difficult to measure. To keep projects on schedule, the software you choose should include a dashboard showing the project’s status so you can instantly see what needs to be done. Tools should also track deadlines and notify users when it comes time to review, guaranteeing no deadline passes unnoticed.
Navigating Cross-Functional Teams With Ashore
Whether your team is built from one department or 12, Ashore has all the tools you need to navigate collaborative projects. With assigned roles, intuitive project management tools, and automations to streamline the workflow, creatives on Ashore get their proofs approved 50% faster! Ready to get started? Sign up for free today!