4 min read

7 Ways To Improve a Cross-Functional Team

7 Ways To Improve a Cross-Functional Team

The most tumultuous team I’ve ever been a member of was a cross-functional team. The team was made up of highly-educated, intelligent individuals who were exceptional leaders in their respective functional areas. However, collectively, the team was deeply flawed.

If this sounds like a familiar experience you’ve had, you are not alone. According to Harvard, a whopping 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional. Stanford Professor and author Behname Tabrizi perfectly explains why the majority of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional. He said, “You bring in people from various functions who each come from a different tribe with a different subculture, a different incentive system, and perhaps even different goals. They are being pulled into two different directions – they have a responsibility to the cross-functional team but their loyalty lies within their function and functional projects. All of this creates a lot of challenges.”

So it begs the question, what can be done to improve cross-functional teams? Let’s start with a common frame of reference for cross-functional meaning, why these teams are important,  and then jump into seven ways to improve them.


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What is a Cross-Functional Team?

A cross-functional team is a group of people from different functional areas or departments working together to achieve a common outcome. Typically, cross-functional teams will include individuals from other functional areas, such as marketing, finance, sales, operations, and human resources.


Why Are Cross-Functional Teams Important?

Given that the rate of failure for cross-functional teams is so high, you may wonder if they’re even worth the effort. The fact is it can be well worth the effort if the right conditions are present for a cross-functional team to thrive. When that happens, the organization and the people involved experience the following benefits. 

Diverse Perspectives

When a team is made up of individuals from different departments, they bring a variety of viewpoints, experiences, and skills that may not be found in a group of individuals from the same function. When team members have different backgrounds and strengths, they can provide unique insights and ideas that would not have been possible otherwise.


Diversity of thought on a team can lead to better decision-making as the team member's breadth of experience and knowledge can help identify blind spots and biases that would otherwise go unnoticed. Cloverpop confirmed this notion, as they found that diverse teams make better decisions up to 87% of the time.

Communication and Efficiency

Forming a cross-functional team is a key step in breaking down silos, as individuals from different departments must work together. With this, the level of communication and collaboration increases, leading to streamlined processes, reduced redundancies, and increased productivity.

Professional Development 

The team makeup of a cross-functional team naturally promotes learning and development as individuals gain exposure and understanding of other functional areas of the organization. It is an opportunity to learn from each other, develop new skills, and gain an appreciation for the interconnectivity of an organization.

7 Ways To Improve Cross-Functional Teams

Improving the performance of a cross-functional team requires a combination of several strategies. Here are seven suggestions to help create the right conditions for teams to be as effective as possible.

7 Ways To Improve a Cross-Functional Team - Niagara Institute

1. Appoint a strong leader

It’s not uncommon for cross-functional teams to be formed in the absence of a leader. Functional experts are brought together to solve a problem or work together as peers without defined oversight. This is a mistake. Strong leadership can be the linchpin for a cross-functional team's success as they’re the ones who set the environment and acceptable behaviors, manage conflicts, develop actionable and realistic goals, provide support and direction, and ensure accountability. 

2. Create a Positive team culture

Psychological safety, that is, an environment where individuals feel comfortable being vulnerable in sharing their ideas, asking questions, and challenging assumptions, is essential for cross-functional teams. This type of culture must be present in the team for individuals to drop their functional guards and biases to come together to achieve the mission at hand.

3. Establish a vision and Define goals

Many people can relate to being on a team and wondering, “Why am I here?” Many cross-function teams fail because they do not have a clear team vision and actionable goals. Without an understanding of what the team is trying to achieve, team members will lack direction and focus, falling back on their functional responsibilities and loyalties, leading to a lack of team alignment among members.


4. Foster a shared Sense Of Responsibility

To break down the natural tendency to be loyal to and fight for their functional area, the leader of a cross-functional team needs to establish shared ownership and responsibility to the team. Team members must be involved in decision-making and feel they have a voice. To do so, team leaders must not allow common pitfalls to happen, such as team members having a meeting after the meeting and allowing a few vocal participants to monopolize the conversation.

5. Provide Development Opportunities 

Ongoing training and development where participants gain an understanding and appreciation for a big-picture perspective and the different functional areas can drastically change the trajectory of a cross-functional team. This is because, with knowledge and enterprise perspective, team members have greater regard for the need to collaborate cross-functionally. 

In addition to professional growth, providing team-building opportunities, such as team training or coaching focused on collaboration or communication, can help build team cohesion, commitment, and performance over time.

6. Encourage frequent and open communication

Creating an environment that fosters and encourages frequent and open communication is a critical factor in team performance. Doing so ensures that team members feel open to sharing their ideas, perspectives, updates, and challenges in both formal settings, such as team meetings and as they happen casually via team communication channels such as Slack.

7. Make the most of meetings

Meetings are where problems are solved, decisions are made, and where, if there is any dysfunction on the team, it becomes acutely visible. It’s up to the leader to ensure the time together is productive, inclusive, focused on the goals, and valuable. Having a clear agenda, ground rules, and meeting action items creates a shared responsibility among participants and frees the leader from managing participants' behaviors to facilitating meaningful conversations.

The Team Culture Toolkit Conains Resources That Will Help You Understand Where Your Culture Is Today and What You Want It to Be

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