21 Jun

Cross-functional teams – roles and responsibilities

“O, Puchan, may we meet with a wise man who will guide us at once, saying: “Behold your way!” – Rig Veda

Have you ever sat on a cross-functional team and wondered “why am I here?” How long were you left wondering this – a few minutes then it all became clear? Or were you wondering for the entire project?

Not many of us love wasting time in our busy working days. So when we are involved with something like a cross-functional team, we want to know why we are there and what we are expected to contribute. Otherwise, wouldn’t we be better off working on something else? Yet it is a common issue for people working on cross-functional teams. This uncertainty can be exacerbated by managers who tell us we are involved, rather than asking or explaining the reasons.

If you are setting up or leading a cross-functional team, you will be a step ahead if you are able to provide participants with a clear understanding of their role and expected responsibilities right from the start. You are then more likely to have willing and effective team members ready for the first meeting.

Some tips to help you do this:

Choose representation carefully

Having the right representation on a cross-functional team is important. But don’t just think you need to choose ‘1 person from each department’. Challenge this commonly held belief. (NB: we are talking here about cross-functional project teams, not focus groups providing input) Ask yourself: “To achieve the project objectives, what representation is critical vs. nice to have?”; “Who is essential to the discussion and decision-making that will be required?” Too many people on a project team can be dangerous – a good number to work with is somewhere between 7 and 10, but this varies depending on the type of project. If you do believe you need a large group, consider having a ‘core team’ with major decision makers and a couple of sub-teams working on certain elements or piloting suggestions.

Choose roles, not people

When making decisions about representation on the team, it is tempting to consider the dynamics created by combining different personality styles within the one room. Although there will be cases when this is appropriate, generally a more successful approach is to consider job roles required first. In this way, it will be clearer to explain why someone has or hasn’t been asked to join the group. And, it will prevent your own assumptions and likes / dislikes from entering into a professional decision.

Be clear on responsibilities

When you are choosing roles to be on the team, consider what you expect them to be responsible for. Of course, as the team establishes itself, these responsibilities may change, but having an idea up front will help you communicate with the people involved and obtain mutual understanding from the start. Three questions to help you here: “What are the reasons that this role / person needs to be involved in the project?”; “What contributions might be reasonably expected of them during the project?” and “What would they potentially be responsible for  as part of the project work?”

Communicate the key points

Once you have determined your team make-up and they have been informed / asked to be involved, ensure that you have effective communication channels from the beginning. Although not always possible, it is ideal to meet one-on-one with team members in person. If this is not feasible, then a phone conversation is the next preference.  There are a number of items to cover with the team member to ‘get them on board’ – here is a suggested flow for the conversation:

  • Thank you for being involved in this project – your input will be very important to our success
  • You have been asked to be on this team because of <reasons for being chosen>
  • The objective of this project is to <cross-functional team’s reason for being>
  • It is likely that your responsibilities would be <expected responsibilities> and we will discuss this further as a group
  • Our time frame for the project is <timeframe and any relevant milestones initially known>
  • I would expect that your weekly / monthly time committment will be <time> which includes a regular meeting and follow-up work
  • What questions do you have for me before the project begins?
  • Thanks again for being involved. I look forward to working with you!

These tips may sound like common sense, however in a busy working day, it is often the little things that are rushed through or missed when cross-functional teams can feel like ‘something extra to do’. It is, though, the little things that will help you and the team you are leading to get off to a good start.

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