By Jeannette Terry

Dysfunctional Cross team collaboration - cross functional team conflict

Cross-functional teams can be a great tool for strengthening your organization’s competitive edge. They can streamline processes, provide higher quality solutions for complex organizational problems, and garner cost-savings from improved operational efficiencies.

Those all sound like good things for your company, right? Yet many cross-functional teams fail. In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, Behnam Tabrizi reports that, based on his extensive research, approximately 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional and fail to meet task-related objectives such as staying within budget, staying on schedule, meeting customer expectations and maintaining alignment with corporate goals.

Why is that?

Tercon Partners and others who study cross-functional teams found several factors – both task-related and interpersonal – that contribute to team dysfunction.

Task-Related Factors That Contribute Most to Team Dysfunction

  • Unclear goals. Without a clear purpose and defined goals, the team won’t be able to work efficiently toward any solution and will likely waste time on issues that are not relevant to the objective.
  • Lack of well-defined accountabilities. 
  • Insufficient resourcing.
  • Wrong mix of functions and skills represented on the team. The people on the team need to be carefully chosen so they can contribute the right knowledge or skills to accomplish the team’s objective.
  • Lack of consistent executive-level support. Cross-functional teams need strong executive level support on an on-going basis. This includes access to financial and personnel resources as well as frequent verbal/written endorsements of the team’s objectives and how its work aligns with the company’s overall strategic objectives.Unfortunately, when visible and consistent executive level support is lacking – especially for high profile initiatives – team failure may be the product of benign neglect (not sure what exactly they mean by benign neglect). TerconPartners believes that the ideal executive sponsor for a high visibility cross-functional team is someone whose success as a senior manager is linked to the team’s accomplishments. In other words, the sponsor has some skin in the game!
  • Unclear governance procedures and boundaries. The team’s governance model should be one of the first topics on the team’s agenda because it spells out how certain decisions will be made, who has specific authority for what, and where the team’s boundaries lie. Many years of experience working with cross-functional teams have demonstrated that the likelihood of team success in meeting objectives increases exponentially when all members understand and buy into the governance model and team boundaries from the beginning.

Interpersonal Factors That Lead to Team Dysfunction

Interestingly enough, interpersonal problems are often the main reasons teams go “bad.” The following factors all set up barriers between members that precluded cooperation toward their common goal.

  • “Competition Hangover.” If team members have been in situations previously where they competed with each other directly or indirectly for budget, staff and/or recognition, they may find it difficult to drop the mindset of “us vs. them.” This sets up a barrier between the members and precludes cooperation.
  • Low interpersonal trust. Regardless of whether the lack of trust resulted from a specific incident or is based on incomplete or inaccurate information, it can linger as a negative undercurrent beneath the surface and sometimes cause adversarial behavior if not addressed openly during a team building session.
  • Past unresolved conflicts. Sometimes previous issues between departments can mean that a few members may arrive with “baggage” that may need to be disposed of either publicly or privately in order to get the air cleared and move on.

What You Can Do To Maximize Your Cross-Functional Team’s Success

Build a collaborative team culture.

Cisco Systems, the multinational technology conglomerate, has been a strong proponent of the connection between a highly collaborative team culture and the number of innovations and high quality technical solutions that their teams deliver. In fact, there are many more companies that are confirming what organizational development practitioners have believed for a long time: teams that establish and maintain positive interpersonal relationships are more productive and produce higher quality results than those that do not. This doesn’t mean that they never have any disagreements. It just means that they choose to resolve differences constructively and that they’re committed to listening to each other’s ideas with an open mind.

Establish effective communication.

Cross-functional teams need to learn to communicate with each other effectively before they can collaborate successfully. Toward that end, there are two “Best Practices” for setting a cross-functional team up for success on both the interpersonal and task levels:

  1. Schedule an off-site “team-building” session. Use a neutral third party to facilitate the session. Include the following agenda items:
    • Review team member Communication Style Preferences and create a Team Profile Map to be shared with on-site and remote team members. (Recommended tool – The INSIGHT Inventory®
    • Review the team’s goals, roles, accountabilities, and interdependencies.
    • Develop team “Ground Rules” that foster collaboration, build interpersonal trust and define the type of culture members agree to support as they work together to accomplish the team’s objectives.
  2. Monitor the team pulse. Provide a mechanism for team members to periodically evaluate the team’s performance in terms of how well is the team working together. What’s going well and what isn’t? What needs to be changed in order to improve team performance and team relationships? (Recommended tool: TerconPartners’ Cross-Functional Team Alignment Index™)

Cross-functional teams can do great things for your organization, but simply creating one does not guarantee its success in delivering the results you’re looking for. Glenn Parker, a noted researcher in the field of cross-functional teams, points out that “Team sponsors and team players must understand that the beauty of the idea of putting together a diverse group of people to launch a new product, develop a new system or solve a business problem is not enough (by itself).”

You need to go beyond simply identifying a problem, developing a team charter, and putting a diverse team together to best forge a solution. You need to work together effectively toward a common, defined goal, leaving any personal baggage at the door and avoiding the pitfalls listed above. Many times, proficiency in “soft skills” will enable a team’s technical skills and expertise to be fully leveraged.

About the author

Jeannette Terry

Under Terry’s leadership, TerconPartners has grown from a regionally focused firm in America to an international human capital consultancy. Terry has extensive experience supporting major capital projects, where she has collaborated with project executives and teams to achieve performance breakthroughs and to dramatically improve organizational capability. She has coached leaders and developed multi-cultural and multi-discipline teams on five continents and in several off-shore facilities.

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