Complex problem solving often require complex thinking to get to simple, effective, easy to implement solutions. When a team is very homogenous, they tend to think very rigidly and one-dimensionally.
Consider a football team. Coaches understand the need for a well-balanced set of skills. A team needs big guys for the offensive line. It needs a quick thinker who can throw well for its quarterback. It needs strong players for running backs and linebackers, and fast players as receivers. With only big guys, or just fast guys, a team would fail.
A cross-functional team in the workplace follows the same principle. It uses people with a variety of skills and experience to round out the team and match its abilities to the needs of the project.
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The Benefits of a Cross-Functional Teams
A wide range of skills. A kaizen team, for example, may benefit from having a welder and a Microsoft Office expert.
Access to information. Different teams know different things about different parts of a company. Having the right tidbit of knowledge in the room can save time and avoid costly mistakes.
Different perspectives. Executives and frontline employees think differently. Having their yin and yang on the same cross-functional team often balances to form better solutions.
Access to resources. Cross-functional team members often have access to physical resources. An example: a team member from the facilities group may be able to use a workshop, and an IT person may be able to find an extra computer monitor.
In a kaizen, this might mean that there would be a buyer/planner, order entry specialist, A/R specialist, marketing manager, and an IT programmer all working on how to process credit checks for customers at the time of purchase. The reason these team members would be included is obvious. On occasion, though, add someone with skills that are slightly outside of what you think you need (the buyer/planner). They might have an idea from their line of work that applies nicely to the task at hand.
Use cross-functional teams regularly. Often the best ideas come from a synthesis of thoughts from different specialties. Often one group does something routinely in their line of work that creates the ‘Aha! moment’ when things just fall into place.
Pitfalls of a Cross-Functional Team
Lack of ongoing relationships. When teams are ad hoc, they have to go through all the team building steps to become an effective organization. Since most cross-functional teams are not permanent, this must be done each time a team is formed. To speed team building, create a process to jump-start cross-functional teams. Use icebreakers, team building exercises, and assign seating that puts people away from others that they know, so they will be forced to meet new people.
Lack of understanding. People on teams will not always know what others do, and might discount their knowledge about the topic. Keep control of discussions to make sure no groups dominate. Also, ask lots of questions to help build intra-team understanding of what people do.
Uninformed leadership. Team leaders normally have experience in one of the functional specialties. There’s an old adage, ‘if the only tool you know how to use is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’ That applies to team leadership as well. If a leader comes from an A/R background, they will look to the A/R function for solutions.
Competing styles. Some people have open outgoing styles. Others are introspective when thinking about a problem. Varying styles can often create friction, especially when there is a looming deadline. Facilitation skills come in handy here to keep the discussions and actions moving along without getting out of control. The more conflict the team has, the more involved a cross-functional team leader or facilitator should be in the discussion.