Tips for effective cross-functional teams

“I was so excited to be a part of the committee,” a colleague told me recently. “That’s why it is so frustrating that we are going nowhere.” She went on to tell me that people had stopped showing up and the committee seemed to go in circles and discuss the same things in endless detail, without reaching an action plan. It had all the symptoms of process paralysis. 

Committees and task forces can do great things when they are structured and led properly. The problem is that so few really are. What typically happens is a cross-functional group is brought together and given a mission to work on something. The project is not defined clearly on the front end and the process components are ignored. “Working on it” becomes a meandering, frustrating, time-consuming marathon of endless meetings with little to show for it.  

No one argues that cross-functional teams are a great way to solve organizational problems, but how can they be set up for success? Here are some things to consider the next time you bring a group together…or, if you want to rescue a group that is experiencing process paralysis.

Name a senior sponsor.

Because the problem affects many different functional areas, a task force makes sense; it can’t be solved in any one department. But who owns it? Because the task force isn’t a part of the regular chain of command, it needs to be tethered to the organization’s decision-making process somehow.  

The sponsor should be someone at the top of the organization, who has a vested interest in getting the problem solved, and who can marshal the necessary resources and attention. In addition, the sponsor is someone who can help the group figure out how to work the organization’s communication and political systems. For example, he or she can help the group put together their proposal and take it to the senior management team for approval. Without a sponsor, the well-meaning group will likely flounder and could head in the wrong direction.  

Define the outcomes and scope of authority.

Let’s use this example as an illustration: A group of management folks was brought together to work on the problem of “retention” in their organization. They studied employee survey data and discussed the problem at length. People stopped coming to meetings. They weren’t making much progress. Then one of the members of the team asked human resources to share the turnover statistics, broken down by department and supervisor. The group had the idea that the only way they could improve retention was to identify who had the worst turnover and then go and counsel those managers.  

Did they have the right idea? Of course manager/employee relationships are at the heart of turnover. (A Gallup poll shows that it accounts for 75 percent of all turnover.) But did they have the authority to go off and counsel their peers? It would have been a disaster.  

A more effective process would have been to define the scope up front. For example, “Research what other companies are doing and make recommendations about what the organization could do to improve retention”. If they had a sponsor, say, the Vice President of Human Resources, he or she could have helped them stay on track and present their recommendations. 

Gather the right stakeholders and make expectations clear.

A task force should be built into participants’ annual goals. If it’s piled on top of their packed schedules, it will be the first thing to slip off. If it’s an important enough issue to spend time on, it should be factored into the priority list and measured at performance review time. During the first session, the sponsor and leader should discuss why each person was invited, what they will be expected to do, what attendance requirements are (Should they send a replacement if they can’t make the meeting? And what should they do to find out what happened if they miss a meeting?)  

During the process of working on the problem, keep asking yourself, “Are the right people in the room right now?” As it evolves, you may want to invite other people who can offer valuable insight and solutions. If it will require buy in from someone, or touches someone’s area or responsibility, they may need to be invited—even for one meeting. 

Limit the time frame.

Managers don’t give an employee a project without a deadline, so why would you simply turn a group loose on an issue without a timeframe? Groups run the risk of getting bogged down under their own weight—multiple issues, vested interests, different departmental politics—even finding dates they can all meet, drag out the process. A tasks force or group will be more focused and productive if they hear a clock ticking and have a sponsor who is meeting with them periodically to ask, “Where are you in the process?” 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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