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Building Cross-Functional Capability: What It Really Takes
by Michael Maccoby
Research Technology Management; Volume 42. No. 3. May-June, 1999. pp 56-58.
Building cross-functional capability is a lot harder than drawing lines on
an organization chart. It requires upgrading leadership and team-member
skills. It also demands that organizational culture become more
interactive and less bureaucratic.
At the same time, by relying too much on cross-functional teams,
organizationsand especially R&D labsrisk diluting deep functional
knowledge and expertise, ending up with too many superficial generalists.
Given these dangers and difficulties, why should managers bother about
building cross-functional capability? The answer is that many projects
and problems require knowledge integration. There is strong evidence that
cross-functional teams save time and money in developing new products.
Furthermore, customers are increasingly asking for solutions to their
problems. This requires cross-functional teams not only to package
products, but also to develop new applications. This kind of partnering has
also stimulated ideas that energize the R&D process.
Together with Charles Heckscher of Rutgers University, I have been
observing successes and failures in cross functional teamwork. We find
there are common elements essential for building this capability. These
have to do with competencies in organization, leadership and team
What Organizations Need
Organizations should have:
- Competent and lean functional knowledge groups. Experts need a home
where they share specialized knowledge with others in their own field.
Technical disciplines still have some qualities of a craft guild. The
difference between traditional guilds and the present day is that with
the breakneck pace of innovation, the young often know more than the
master craftsmen. This is especially the case with information
technology, perhaps less so in biochemistry, for example.
By lean groups, I mean that competencies are aligned with strategic
goals. Everyone in the group should either add value or demonstrate
innovative potential. Breakthroughs still come from functional experts
who are not trying to satisfy customer needs, but to create new needs.
(When downsizing a functional knowledge group, be prepared for
entrepreneurial experts to flood senior management with memos and
proposals that propose breakthroughs.)
- Processes for forming, managing, assessing and dissolving teams. For
cross-functional teaming to become an organizational capability rather
than a serendipitous event, processes need to be established: What is
the team's mandate? Which functions are required? When should they be
brought in? What are the guidelines for bringing new members up to
speed and sending people back to their functional organizations when
they are no longer needed. Without processes and guidelines, teams
develop a life of their own and costs mushroom.
- Measurements of performance. Individual contributions to teams should
be evaluated, with supportive incentives. Include measurements by
customers who in the case of R&D may be production or marketing
organizations. Those who contribute by teaching and facilitating
knowledge creation should also be rewarded. Incentives should balance
team success and individual contribution.
- A pragmatic learning culture. Cross-functional teams require cultural
operating principles that are understood and practiced by everyone.
There should be a process for developing and communicating these
Pragmatism in this sense means defining values in terms of practice.
These "soft" cultural principles are in fact harder to develop than the
"hard" factors of roles and measurements. They include open dialogue
where conflicting views are tested and experimentation is encouraged.
In a learning culture, people not only reflect on the relation of practice
to results but also question their theories when the results don't meet
expectations. Failures are used as opportunities for learning better
ways of doing things.
- Interactive strategic hierarchy. Although good cross-functional teams
should be a heterarchies where subject matter leadership shifts
according to who has the appropriate knowledge, organizations need a
strategic hierarchy. This includes the strategic level, that determines
market positioning, the operational and functional knowledge
leadership level, and the "doing" level of technical staff. This
hierarchy should be interactive and transparent, and information should
flow up and down freely.
What Leaders Need
Strategists should not only communicate a vision to the whole
organization, but also engage operational leaders in a dialogue about
implementation. The doers in labs and on the front line should also be able
to engage in the dialogue and give feedback to operational and functional
knowledge leadership. They should also be heard at the strategic level. (I
have described this more fully in "Knowledge Workers Need New
A learning culture must have leadership that models and maintains it. I
cannot overemphasize the importance of leadership to determine strategic
direction, knit together different kinds of expertise, and provide the
competence required for cross functional teams.
- Strategic leadership designs and communicates a 3-5 year vision for
the organization and the assumptions underlying it. At this level,
business opportunities are identified in terms of value propositions.
Who are our customers? What value do we offer them? How will we
create this value? How should we be seen by the market? What kinds of
teams are required? What skills do we need? What are the investment
- Operational leadership then takes over to find the skills needed,
organize teams and facilitate their activities. Operational leaders must
push the process forward, communicate and over-communicate, follow
up and make sure that everyone is heard, conflict brought out and
resolved. Teams do not succeed without operational leaders, but the
leader must also know when to step aside and let functional experts on
the doing level lead.
- Functional knowledge leadership selects and develops people, according
to the kinds of skills needed for the business. These leaders make sure
that experts keep up with their technical fields and with advances
made in other companies.
What Team Members Need
Finally, cross-functional capability depends on team members. They
should have the following:
- Understanding of the vision, what the organization is trying to
accomplish over the next 3 to 5 years. This understanding directs their
priorities and focusses thinking. Without it, teammembers may
champion ideas and initiatives that are a waste of energy.
- A solid grounding in their own disciplines. Team members must
communicate those innovations or market developments that change the
assumptions underlying value propositions.
- Respect for what each function contributes. Teammembers need to
stretch themselves to learn how and why other disciplines think the
way they do. It also helps to invest time in getting to know each other's
background and interests.
- Clear mandates to make decisions. Unless team members are
empowered by their functional knowledge boss to represent the group's
position on issues, time will be wasted in seeking approval, respect for
each other will erode, and the team will eventually bog down.
- Team skills include brainstorming, listening, asking clarifying
questions, seeking consensus. The team should be trained to practice
- The proper character. Team effectiveness depends on individual
character as well as skills, leadership and organizational capability.
When team members want to help each other succeed, there is less need
for leaders to facilitate open dialogue or resolve conflict. When team
members are thinking only about their own interests, leadership must
become heavy-handed. To create good teams, people with the right
character should be hired and promoted.
These requirements describe why cross-functional capability demands
so much attention to the human side. But there are no shortcuts and the
rewards for this investment are not only in productivity gains, but also
the ability to implement a demanding vision.
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|Organizations Should Have:
||Team Membership Should Have:
- Competent and lean functional knowledge groups
- Process for forming, assessing and dissolving teams
- Measurements of performance with supportive incentives
- Learning culture: interactivity, openness, creative conflict, reflection on
- Interactive strategic hierarchy
- Strategic Leadership
- Describing 3-5 year vision
- Identifying opportunities - value propositions
- Determing the skills needed
- Operational leadership
- Finding the skills needed
- Pushing and following-up
- Functional Knowledge Leadership
- Recruiting talent
- Developing people
- Keeping up with innovation
- Understanding of the vision, what the organization is trying to accomplish
over the next 3 to 5 years--the value propositions
- Solid grounding--good in own discipline
- Respect for what each function contributes and for each other
- Clear mandates--empowered to act
- Team skills
- Character values--helping others succeed