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How to nurture and support cross-functional teamwork and a collaborative culture

  • March 1, 2011

Given the right environment and abundant executive support, cross-functional teams can lift organizations to new heights by pooling their knowledge, penetrating internal silos and devising innovative, holistic solutions. But without the proper leadership and guidance, teams often languish and become dysfunctional, while failing to achieve their all-important mission.

“Cross-functional teams are responsible for knitting the pieces of the organization together and solving today’s big, wicked problems,” says Dr. Sharon Green, associate professor of management for the College of Business and Economics at California State University, East Bay. “It’s critical that executives re-image their roles and embrace the collaborative process, so teams can flourish and surmount these difficult challenges.”

Smart Business spoke with Green about the role of executives in fostering a collaborative environment and nurturing cross-functional teams.

What is the role of cross-functional teams?

Today’s problems are multi-dimensional, so it takes a group of employees with diverse functional expertise and different perspectives to work across disciplines and devise holistic solutions. In many cases, these teams are being asked to develop new products or implement vast changes that impact the entire company. They often encounter resistance, because many companies are a collection of fiefdoms, so team members have to bridge the divide between departments, or even collaborate with other teams, in the quest for comprehensive solutions. Another reason the teamwork concept is gaining momentum is that it suits the work-style preferences of Generation Y, who are very social, even tribal by nature, and crave a collaborative process and a variety of projects.

How is the team structure evolving to meet new challenges?

To meet the growing need for global solutions and lower operating costs, companies like Hewlett Packard are implementing virtual teams, which connect home-based, high-level professionals from around the world. We’re also seeing the emergence of multicultural teams, especially here in California, because they focus on products and services that satisfy our diverse population. Finally, companies have so many teams in play, there’s a growing need for intra-team collaboration and extreme consensus-building as teams channel their energies toward a common goal.

How can business leaders assess team effectiveness and head off problems?

Traditionally, executives have evaluated teams by monitoring outcomes, cost versus budget and the time required to develop solutions. But these types of high-level assessments don’t expose the underlying issues that point to future problems. Executives need to get down in the weeds and talk to team members, because stress, low energy, absenteeism and poor morale are symptoms of dysfunction and, if left unabated, often lead to turnover and the loss of critical institutional knowledge, particularly in high-tech companies. Also, be sure to evaluate the effectiveness of team leaders, because underperforming teams are often led by veteran, mid-level managers, who rely on command and control techniques and tend to over-manage the process. These managers need training to mentor and coach cross-functional teams, which thrive on empowerment and equality.

How can executives support effective teamwork?

Executives should embrace these techniques to build, nurture and support teams.

• Conduct a personal audit. Leaders must audit their own behaviors and expectations to see if they are enabling or hindering the teamwork process. Do you embrace collaboration? Do you truly trust the team to develop great solutions? Do you see yourself as a team member? Executives must set the tone by embracing the teamwork philosophy and modeling appropriate behaviors.

• Be a great storyteller. To be successful, teams need to understand their mission and role. Why is the project critical and how will their solutions impact the company? Leaders must provide the framework for success through effective storytelling, and then define and communicate the expectations, before backing away and refraining from controlling the process.

• Provide training and development. Teamwork skills are not innate. To groom team players with the ability to work across multiple disciplines, executives must task human resources with creating a training curriculum that covers communication and collaboration skills, as well as conflict resolution, and teaching team members how to play various roles and draft team agreements.

How can executives embrace and support the teamwork process?

First, teams need coaching, encouragement, mediation and impartial feedback to deliver quality outcomes. It’s up to executives to fulfill these needs and provide emotional support. Many executives were star individual performers before moving up the corporate ladder, but they should refrain from doing the work or supplying the answers, and instead offer guidance and counsel so the team members can struggle, persevere and overcome obstacles on their own. Second, team members need to raise their hands and ask for help when they hit an impasse, without worrying that their actions will be viewed as a show of weakness. Finally, executives need to be active participants and provide mentorship, so teams don’t feel like they’ve been assigned a difficult task and set adrift without adequate support.

Dr. Sharon Green is an associate professor of management for the College of Business and Economics at California State University, East Bay. Reach her at

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