My Take: What Cross-Functional Teams Need to Succeed

Photo by Manuel Nägeli on Unsplash


When approaching our work, it is unwise to ignore the elements that provide needed support. These elements combine to create a broad, stable foundation that acknowledges a set of decidedly human-centered needs. Ultimately, these “stabilizers” are necessary for our work to become a success. Case in point: cross-functional teams.

Cross-functional teaming arose from a vital need to deal with quickly developing challenges and opportunities in the external environment. With teams, diverse skill sets are brought together to forge an improved organizational response. However, the supporting elements necessary for this process to function to its best advantage are not always present. To understand this dilemma, we must fully explore the systems that inform or support their work.

Clearly there are underlying structures that support teaming. However, much of what contributes to the success of teams, is rarely discussed completely.

Here are a few elements I would like to consider, likely critical to the support of cross-functional teams; 1) role clarity, 2) built sense of community, 3) networks, and 4) technology/systems that inform the network. Over the years, I’ve observed how these elements have pushed their way to the forefront of leadership concerns. Interestingly, these elements explore both the quality and boundary of connection — the very essence teaming.

Role Clarity
As discussed in this now classic HBR post, psychologist Tammy Erickson schools us on the distinction between providing role clarity and controlling natural and the creative process. Here research revealed that team members must understand their role, their contributing “building block” so to speak, as their team collectively propels forward to meet their valued goals. Yet, teams are more likely to be successful when we leave room for ambiguity concerning “how ” the work is completed.

Examples such as the “Hollywood Model” — which allows the film industry the flexibility to come together, disband and re-convene for different projects. The foundation of the model is built upon a rare collection of supportive elements that provide role clarity, pay stability and fulfilling work.

A Sense of Community
In the opening pages of Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of a small town in Pennsylvania which on the face of things, had defied medical odds. Heart disease was nearly absent in its population under the age of 65 — something quite unusual — and no one was able to explain this peculiarity. Examining diet, exercise and genetics of Rosetans offered no clues. They smoked heavily and ingested a fat laden diet. Family members living in other areas did not enjoy the same health outcomes.

The identified explanation is surprising, even shocking. However, in retrospect it is an element that should have been in the forefront. It was the environment, which influenced well being. It was the very culture of Roseto itself. The built community.

When an erosion of that sense of community occurs in a workplace, we sense the loss — even if we cannot describe it.  We mourn it. The conversations with colleagues, the support and recognition. Ultimately, this dynamic influences the way in which team members interact with each other, with those across the organization.

There are numerous theories of networks within organizations. However, the manner in which networks are built and utilized, stands as one of the most critical concerns within modern organizations. Moreover, as organizations aspire to become more agile — how they communicate internally becomes central.

Exploring the specific qualities of a network is important. As organizations moved from traditional hierarchies to looser connections, it became evident that the problem of communication wasn’t completely solved. In fact as discussed here, networks will always have an “informal” quality.  (They aren’t always captured — within an organizational chart.) Like organizations networks must also remain agile, flowing and evolving as needed. Organizations must set the stage, to encourage their growth.

Technology that Informs the Network
While networks help carry out the work, technology platforms — and the elements they address informs those networks. Ultimately, the completeness of this set of systems must also be carefully considered. Consider the challenge of communicating key organizational initiatives. We cannot argue that the explanation of those initiatives will affect teaming and the work accomplished by these teams. However, there are often few systems to rapidly share these shifting priorities. Moreover, there is often incomplete information available internally, providing information about potential the team members that might contribute to its achievement.

Does your organization provide stable systems to help cross-functional teams? Yes or no. Share that here.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She examines the importance of core stability for people & organizations. A charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program since 2012 — her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Talent Zoo, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.


One thought on “My Take: What Cross-Functional Teams Need to Succeed

  1. As you mentioned, cross-functional teams come into play “to deal with quickly developing challenges and opportunities in the external environment.” This is self-indicating of the nature of the challenges at hand as being temporary, yet very crucial.
    One point I wish to add based on my experience is that, a pivotal factor of effectiveness of cross-functional teams is networks seasoned over time. People knowing other people that they can have access to, on a need basis, at a more personal than official level. In my opinion, these trusted networks keep the temporary cross-functional teams anchored and provide the needed drive and resources to reach solutions.


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