Silo-Busting with Cross-Functional Teams

By Marty Gupta

One of the challenges executives face is how to overcome the problems associated with functional and organizational silos that impede collaboration and business agility. Silos form when employees are more loyal to their departments or groups than to the company as a whole. They become less likely to share information, work practices and resources. As a result, incentives and priorities become misaligned, and decision-making across the company becomes uncoordinated.

Small, autonomous cross-functional teams are one solution to this problem and we see more of them in businesses with greater agility. In this article we will explore the causes of functional and organizational silos, discuss different types of cross-functional teams, and provide some practical suggestions for their greater use.

Specialists versus Generalists

We live in an increasingly specialized world. This is true in business functions as it is in individual occupations. From an early age we are encouraged to specialize in sports and the arts, education and work.

In his 2019 bestseller, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein makes a compelling case for generalists and expanding one’s range. The book starts by contrasting two great athletes – Tiger Woods who specialized at a very early age, and Roger Federer who was the opposite, he played numerous sports (anything with a ball) and specialized later.

The book ends with the example of physicist Andre Geim, the only person to win both the Nobel and Ig Nobel prizes. The Ig Nobel is an award for improbable scientific research that makes you think. Geim won for levitating a frog with strong magnets, and later won the Nobel in Physics for his work on the electromagnetic properties of graphene, one of the strongest materials known.

The book cites scores of examples that are more like Federer and Geim than Woods, where the breakthrough, innovation or solution was discovered by a generalist.

In his 2015 book, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, General Stanley McChrystal came to a similar conclusion:

‘The models of organizational success that dominated the twentieth century have their roots in the industrial revolution and, simply put, the world has changed. The pursuit of “efficiency”—getting the most with the least investment of energy, time, or money—was once a laudable goal, but being effective in today’s world is less a question of optimizing for a known (and relatively stable) set of variables than responsiveness to a constantly shifting environment. Adaptability, not efficiency, must become our central competency.’

In business, cross-functional teams are the generalists, and agile companies use more of them.

 In Praise of Small, Autonomous Teams

Small, autonomous teams are a key building block in Agile Software Development. While there are different agile methodologies – Kanban, Scrum, Extreme Programming, Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) – the basic principle is the same: Complex problems are disaggregated into discrete tasks performed by small autonomous cross-functional teams. These teams work in an iterative manner in short continuous cycles, incorporating customer feedback each cycle. They adapt as new information is received about the technology and from the customer.

General McCrystal built on this premise in Team of Teams:

‘We dissolved the barriers—the walls of our silos and the floors of our hierarchies—that had once made us efficient. We looked at the behaviors of our smallest units and found ways to extend them to an organization of thousands, spread across three continents. We became what we called “a team of teams”: a large command that captured at scale the traits of agility normally limited to small teams.’

There are many types of cross-functional teams. Our interest here is in small, autonomous cross-functional teams that are assembled for short periods of time to address specific strategic or operational issues. These teams can be internal-facing or external-facing.

Examples of silo-busting cross-functional teams include:

Process Improvement Teams – these teams often operate at the intersection of two or more operational functions, for example, the handoff between sales and customer service (e.g. delivery), or software development and after-sale support (e.g. tradeoff between building bug-free software and faster time-to-market).

Enterprise Process Teams – these teams look for improvement opportunities across the enterprise and consider customers, suppliers and competitors. Examples include a shipping company going from two-day delivery to one-day delivery, or an insurance company that moves to ‘same-day pay’.

Next Generation Product Development Teams – while incremental product improvements and new product development processes are well-defined in most companies, next-generation or new-to-the-world innovations may require standing-up separate cross-functional teams.

Business Development Teams – teams pursuing in-organic business opportunities including new partnerships, ventures and acquisitions, and help with search, due diligence or integration activities.

Other teams pursue strategic initiatives such as culture change, supplier management/vertical integration or reappraising customer relationships.

Effective One-time, Small Autonomous Cross-Functional Teams

Teams are challenging especially if participation is part-time and team members may not have worked with one-another before. Team members from different functions approach the task from different perspectives and may use different problem-solving practices. While there may be an assigned team leader or owner, lines of authority may be blurred, requiring new forms of influence and accountability. Time is limited.

Here are four best practices:

Systematic Approach – while the issues that each team tackles may be unique, the approach need not be. Agile principles and methodologies are ideal for this type of work including project charter and user stories, task boards and stand-ups, and iterative planning and sprints. These tools can be easily taught.

Facilitator – utilize a trained, unbiased facilitator whose only concern is a successful team outcome.

Generalist – add a ‘generalist’ to the team, someone who thinks broadly, likes to experiment and has multi-functional experience.

Retrospective – whether the team succeeds or fails, devote time to reviewing the team’s work and document learning and recommendations for future teams.

Benefits of this Approach

Cross-functional teams increase enterprise-wide understanding. They speed the use of agile tools and build leadership skills (e.g. how to influence without authority). Most of all, they transform organizations by resolving tough strategic and operational issues.

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