Cross-functional teams in Government are nothing new. Over my years working within Government, and as a contractor for Government, I’ve heard them called many things such as “Swat Teams,” “Tiger Teams,” and “Special Project Units” just to name a few. Whatever you call your cross-functional team, they can bring both powerful synergy and destructive conflict to an organization. As you set up your cross-functional team, here are three simple things you can do to bolster its success.

1) Get Beyond the “One Goal” Trap

What is holding this cross-functional team together? Well of course the project is holding this team together. Yet, that one goal is not enough. A cross-functional team held together strictly by the project itself is primed to gridlock at the intersection of “how” and “why.” This is because individuals can easily agree on what needs happen, such as getting a better pay management system, migrating to digital records, or providing integrated services to the public. When you insert various perspectives, skills, resources, and assumptions into this agreement, and you will soon find any agreement compromised by conflicts about how to reach this “shared project goal.”

When I meet with clients who rely on the project as the main bond for their cross-functional team, I encourage them to look for deeper bonds by using a HSD tool called “Radical Inquiry.” This practical tool is a process of reflection and exploration that helps you build clarity and coherence in your team. Using simple questions, teams can move beyond the obvious “what is the goal?” questions, to deeper ones such as:

  • Who am I in this team?
  • From my perspective, what is important in this project?
  • How do I need to connect with others to achieve the project goals?

Prior to project launch, getting cross-functional members thinking about and answering these questions initiates a pattern of active problem solving and pattern influencing from all involved.

2) Shift Tension into Opportunity

The differences within a cross-functional team are similar to those you would find in any well-balanced work unit: that is, varying skills, experiences, resources, as well as work and leadership styles. Highlighting differences present in a cross-functional team is a good way to show each member’s talents and to clarify the roles on the team. At the same time, for these differences to work in complementary ways, the team must also know how their differences can hinder their ability to come together for success.

When tensions run high, which is an inevitable fact of work and life, differences that were once seen as complementary become incompatible. I encourage my clients to identify areas of potential tension as early as possible. Using the HSD tool Interdependent Pairs, I ask them to list the tensions as dilemmas present in the project and the cross-functional team. These tensions are often flagged in the Radical Inquiry process, highlighting their potential for both synergy and conflict. For example:

  • Short term focus / long term focus
  • Hierarchical Reporting / Project Management Reporting structures
  • Tactical action / strategic action

Seeing each tension clearly allows all involved to think critically about how to manage this tension without eliminating either extreme. One cannot focus only on short-term or tactical elements of the project. What is needed is a movement between short and long term or between tactical and strategic, depending on what is needed for success. How a cross-functional team identifies, communicates, and manages its tensions is key to leveraging them and setting conditions for success.

3) Open Multiple Feedback Pathways

Cross-functional teams need information and feedback from multiple sources. Sometimes team members require information from key stakeholders on impacts and needs, other times it’s information from leadership around shifting priorities, resources and timelines. At all times, team members need feedback and information for problem solving and strategizing. Often this need is time sensitive.

I coach my clients to draw on the Interdependent Pairs they listed in section 2, selecting one to work on first. For example, when the project team is asked to be tactical, yet they see pressing strategic elements within the project that need action first. Depending on the team and project, this tension can be more or less apparent. Simply put, I ask my clients to draw a T-graph (using the HSD Same and Different Model) identifying the left side as tactical and the right side as strategic. Then I ask them to list the project elements, questions, and concerns that correspond to each in the appropriate side of the T-graph. Once listed, elements, questions, and concerns can be communicated with more clarity to the right people at the right time. Further, discrepancies and misplacements can be shifted into the right locations with deeper reflection and get communicated with more ease.

Cross-functional teams are necessary, but they can also pose sticky problems. I help my clients use these three HSD models to see the potential in their complex relationships, develop shared understanding, and take powerful, collaborative action.