Why cross-functional working really is the only way

I think that in many ways, the concept of working cross-functionally really is the defining business idea of our times. Consider the age we live in – one in which it is becoming increasingly straightforward for teams to communicate directly and collaborate in real time, wherever they are on the planet.

We live in an age in which consumers and customers can react instantly to the product or service they have just experienced, and interact directly through social media channels with the very people who are actually creating these products and services for them. These are times that demand agility, not the slow plod of departmental procedure. The business environment today requires us to be able to move quickly, and to respond to customer needs in a consistent and coherent way – if we are to be successful at least. But what has all that got to do with the idea of working cross-functionally?

A more fluid approach

Well, this new business environment, and the fresh challenges it brings demands a way of working that is quite different to how things have been in the past. This can manifest itself in a number of ways.

For example, in this new model, everyone’s responsibilities are shared, and the lines between roles are flexible and blurred. This is very different to the traditional structure of businesses, where people have worked in a more siloed, departmental way. Previously, jobs and responsibilities were defined in a very rigid, pragmatic way – everyone understood their clearly defined role, and everything was usually dictated by a strong leader at the top who gave everyone overall direction.

The version we see today is much more fluid, and is defined by constantly changing relationships between individuals. Everyone does what they need to do to achieve the team’s goals, and responsibility for doing this is shared. Managers and team leaders are less dictatorial, and instead more of a central hub around which the whole team revolves.

Building a more cross functional way of working

So how do we achieve this, in order to successfully build cross-functionality into our own teams? Part of the answer to this is around the organisational and management structure of our businesses.

When we move from a rigid, departmental structure (where teams only deal with finite set of responsibilities) to a so-called ‘matrix’ one, we start to see responsibilities overlapping between teams. When we remove job titles (or at least make them less important), we reinforce the idea that saying ‘it’s not in my area of responsibility, so I’m not doing it’ is no longer acceptable or desirable. And when we move from permanent, long-standing organisational structures that may have developed their own rigid traditions, to more temporary, agile teams that are brought together to combine the right skills for a particular job, we become more flexible and responsive.

There’s an important point about individual responsibility here too. When there is a strong leader at the top of an organisation (or even people who aspire to manage in the same way throughout the rest of business), people become dependent on that person’s approval. And that is bad news for any business that wants to become swifter and more agile in the way it works. It is almost impossible to quickly make a decision or deliver a change for a customer if lots of people need to sign it off. So, giving people a sense of shared responsibility through cross functional working and cutting right back on the number of people who need to approve a decision, makes the whole business run more smoothly.

Where is the value?

For me, all of this comes down to value. As a effective team players we should understand instinctively where we can create the most value for our customers

To do this, we need to ask ourselves some tough questions. What will it take to provide those customers with the best possible outcome? Who can I combine my skills with to make that happen? And what more can I do to create a shared sense of team responsibility for making this happen, rather than everyone just going it alone?

Thinking far beyond the boundaries of our own departments, our roles and our functions in this way is, I believe, the only way to shared success in this modern business environment.

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