As a CEO, I hated siloed thinking in my business. I would cringe every time someone complained or lobbied on behalf of “their team.” I hated when an employee would say, “That’s not my job.”

Conversely, few things encouraged me more than seeing leaders step into an uncomfortable situation for them and their department simply because they knew it was in the best interest of “our team” (the entire company). I loved seeing employees step out of the comfort of their role or take responsibility for solving a problem even if no one assigned it to them.

In this article, I’m going to share with you the five ways I learned to overcome the departmental silos that develop in virtually every single growing business. Each of these five strategies will help you build the cross-functionality that will allow the organization to work across functions and between silos, at all levels, in an organic, natural manner. 

Side note: By reading this article, I’m going to assume you’ve already optimized your org chart and have a strong leadership team leading laterally. However, if you’ve not already built these strengths, achieving true cross-functionality will be a difficult, if not impossible, endeavor.

1. Start by creating a cross-functional team

The easiest way to start building cross-functional muscle in your company is to create a cross-functional team. There are a few things you will want to keep in mind as you do.

Include individuals from multiple levels in the company

This is not your senior leadership team or even your second level of managers. We’ve already covered that in leading laterally. Instead, it should be a group of individuals from different departments or divisions AND from different levels in the organization. For those who are new to cross-functionality, this is foreign territory. Having the CEO in a room making decisions with mid-level managers and even front-line workers can make for a very interesting group. 

Create clear boundaries and rules of engagement

As you create the team, make sure everyone understands why the team exists, what success looks like specifically for that team, what decision making authority the team has on its own, and what issues need to be escalated to a management or leadership team. You will also want to discuss how decisions are made and the requirements of each team member.

Select one ongoing issue for the team to own

Cross-functional teams are at their best when everyone on the team is evident on the team’s mandate. However, most companies aren’t used to creating teams for specific issues. They are more accustomed to the leadership team’s standing meetings or specific project meetings with defined start and endpoints.

More often than not, we recommend selecting hiring as the mandate of your new cross-functional team. Hiring affects every team. It is much more effective when done in a team setting. And for many other reasons, it is the most natural and organic issue to tackle first as a cross-functional team.

2. The enterprise commitment

You’ll likely remember the enterprise commitment from a previous article.

“When working in a team or group environment, I will place the interests of the enterprise above my personal interests.”  

By now, you’ve likely tackled the enterprise commitment and are modeling it well at the top, but you cannot assume that everyone in the company gets it. As you create cross-functional teams throughout the company, you must ensure that the enterprise commitment is taught to and upheld by new team members. Include it in the team mandate. Print it out on cards and hand it out at the first team meeting. And hold everyone accountable to it.

This is particularly challenging in a cross-functional environment. The mix of various levels of authority outside of the team, various leadership skill levels inside the team, and multiple departments represented leaves plenty of room for infighting, confusion, and apathy. 

By creating that team, you are going straight to the heart of each of those issues, and doing it in a safe and highly productive way. Still, you will need a few tools to speed up the process and make it stick. 

Build with balance in mind. Don’t include five individuals who all share one department, leadership style (more on this in a moment), or management level with one odd man out.

Schedule consistent meetings. This will allow the team to create a cadence and begin meeting and addressing issues proactively instead of reactively (and don’t forget to show up!)

Encourage open disagreement and require absolute commitment. Make the most of your meeting by engaging in a passionate debate on the issue. Then make sure everyone leaves the room 100% committed to the team’s course of action.

3. Ensure you have the right leadership styles in the room.

In my work, I use a tool called the Synergist Model [who on your team] that identifies three natural leadership style (the Visionary, the Operator, and the Processor and one learned style (the Synergist).

Establish the right balance

When establishing a cross-functional team, your need to make sure you have the right balance of styles.

  • A core team mandate like hiring would require an equal balance of all four styles.
  • A new product dream team may benefit by leaning more toward Visionaries and Synergists.
  • A disaster recovery or turnaround team would likely benefit from a more Operator-centric team.

In any case, it is important to match the VOPS balance of the team to the team’s mandate. When in doubt, shoot for an equal balance of all four styles.

Understand the potential conflicts

By their very nature, strong Visionaries, the Operators, and the Processors don’t get along very well. Understanding these dynamics is essential for cross-functionality to flourish across the company. Here are just a few of the potential conflicts.

Visionaries can burn out Operators. Visionaries have a thousand ideas for every one idea they share. Even then, they still share about seven times as many ideas as an Operator can accomplish, leaving the Operator(s) buried under an ever-growing todo list.

Processors can smother the creativity of Visionaries. Visionaries love to blow bubbles. Processors love to poke holes. This dynamic can make brainstorming sessions exhausting for both of them and leave everyone frustrated in the process.

Operators can be judgmental and dismissive of Synergists. These task-oriented Operators can get twice as much done as anyone else around them. They pride themselves on their productivity while Synergists often boost productivity behind the scenes. Because they have little to show for their own productivity, Synergists can struggle to respect their Operator counterparts (this relationship is the centerpiece of the drama in the Amazon series Counterpart).

Understanding the common style clashes and how to overcome them will dramatically reduce the ramp-up time for the cross-functional team and cut away much of the unproductive drama that tends to hold teams back.

4. Use the 4D Process in every team environment

Cross-functional teams move the business forward by creating environments for high-quality team-based decision making outside of the formal leadership structure. This is a much more efficient and effective way to scale a business.

Cross-functional teams move the business forward by creating environments for high-quality team-based decision making outside of the formal leadership structure. This is a much more efficient and effective way to scale a business. Click To Tweet

However, to get these teams to work and flow well, a common decision-making process and cadence need to be adopted company-wide. Nothing will frustrate your progress toward cross-functionality, like stopping to make up a new decision-making mode in every new team. It will create unnecessary confusion and grind team productivity to a halt.

The primary mechanism for cross-functional teams to work together is… (you guessed it) meetings. Physical, virtual, or otherwise, your entire company needs to be proficient at running and engaging is highly productive meetings. Lousy meetings with no cadence will frustrate your people and undercut the capacity of every team.

I haven’t found a single tool more effective at creating a strong meeting cadence than the 4D Process. It can be used efficiently at every level in the organization and adapted to the needs of each team without sacrificing continuity from one team to the next.

You can use it to:

  • establish who needs to bring what data to the meeting or distribute it ahead of time.
  • set the ground rules, expectations, and time limits for debate
  • defer topics that are outside of the team mandate or when you don’t have the information or team members you need to make the decision, and
  • establish exactly how the team will decide which course of action to take

By implementing a consistent decision-making process across the company, you’ll create the capacity for multiple teams to make decisions and multiple team members to flow in and out of meetings as needed based on the various topics on the agenda. When that happens, you will have started the transition from cross-functional teams to it’s far more powerful big brother, cross-functionality.

5. Require team-based excellence

The privilege of engaging in meetings and making decisions on behalf of the entire company comes with a responsibility to make sure you have the individual skills to contribute effectively.

The shift to cross-functionality requires everyone in the business to think like leaders and managers rather than functional doers. Being great at your set of tasks doesn’t guarantee you will excel cross-functional.

The shift from “I” to “we” can be challenging for many individuals as it requires a whole new skillset.

To make cross-functionality work at scale, you need to start giving your employees the education, training, experience, and expectation of living like a leader no matter what title you have.

We’ve organized many of these competencies into two categories: managing yourself and working with others. 

Managing yourself

If you can’t manage your own time and productivity well, you’ll show up late and stressed for meetings and fail to follow-through between meetings. The following skills are essential for any leader looking to lead at a higher level.

  • Efficient Time Management
  • Effective Priority Management
  • Decisive Crisis Management
  • Appropriate Delegation

Managing others

Leadership comes with the responsibility of managing others effectively. A growing organization cannot depend solely on the personal productivity of its leaders. Instead, it will become increasingly dependent on those leaders’ ability to maximize their team members’ personal productivity.

  • Engaging in difficult Conversations 
  • Managing productive conflict and minimize unnecessary conflict
  • Communicating effectively
  • Vertical and lateral inclusiveness
  • Consistent accountability 

Together these skillsets form the foundation needed to foster team-based excellence.

In closing

Cross-functionality doesn’t get half the attention it needs. Once built into your business’s fiber, cross-functionality allows you to move further faster with higher morale, a stronger culture, and greater camaraderie. It shortens or eliminates the gap between deciding and doing and allows even large organizations to stay nimble and stay sharp.

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