Cross-functional (XFN) teams can seem counter-intuitive. Why? Because we’ve become institutionalised to think that businesses should be organised by function. But cross functional teams are more common sense than crazy. Here’s why.
Last year I supported a company to adopt a fully XFN model. They already had XFN product and tech teams, but they wanted to expand the model and integrate business partners. Not everyone was bought in. Some business partners were very sceptical. And that’s not uncommon. XFN teams can be a tough sell outside of tech (and sometimes even within tech!) I realised I needed a better way to engage the sceptics, and this is what I came up with.
Imagine you own 3 football teams. One team consists entirely of goalkeepers and defenders. The second consists entirely of midfielders and the third of forwards and strikers. Organising your teams in this way is akin to organising by function — you have designed your teams based on their skills, on what they do. The problem is, it takes a mix of skills to win games. Your teams are going to struggle…
If you re-organise your 3 teams so that each has a mixture of defenders, midfielders and forwards, you have now created 3 XFN teams. Each team now has the mix of skills required to win games. The job of a goalkeeper is to win the game; the skill he brings is saving goals. The job of the striker is to win the game; he uses his goal scoring skills. The individual players’ jobs don’t change, but they now play in a team with the complementary skills that will enable them to win games.
XFN teams make sense because strategic goals, like football games, often require a mixture of skills to achieve them. The rationale of cross-functional teams is to optimise your organisation design to support the achievement of your strategic goals. You organise people based on what you want them to achieve rather than by the particular skill that they bring. And the benefits?
- When a team has all the skills they need you liberate them to move at speed because you have removed dependencies
- You create a melting pot of diverse skills which increases innovation
- You break down silos — no more “us and them”
I have found the football analogy helps people understand why cross-functional teams make sense — it creates an “aha” moment! It doesn’t kill scepticism but it does spark some curiosity and a willingness to experiment with this type of structure.
A few other reasons I like this analogy:
- Football teams have a shared priority: to win the game. (Good) XFN teams have a shared outcome to achieve
- Football teams have a shared game plan. (Good) XFN teams have a shared strategy.
- Football teams prize team results over individual performance. (Good) XFN teams optimise for team success over individual glory.
When you align people around outcomes you set them up to achieve better results faster.
Also worth noting two important things I’ve learned on my journey so far:
- Cross-functional teams are not the same as Scrum teams — they are about creating alignment around outcomes and strategy and the skills to execute on that strategy independently.
- There’s no need to be cross-functional for the sake of it. Some outcomes can be achieved within a function or functional team, and that’s fine. If a team has all the skills required, they are already independent.
Are you looking to adopt cross-functional teams? I am a Business Agility Coach & Consultant helping organisations to grow, scale and deliver value fast.
Find out more at betterfasterhappier.com.