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The real power of cross-functional teams

The real power of cross-functional teams
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First Published: Sun, Aug 28 2011. 08 30 PM IST

Inclusive growth: Ivory tower policy formulations don’t work.
Inclusive growth: Ivory tower policy formulations don’t work.
Updated: Sun, Aug 28 2011. 08 30 PM IST
Last week I attended a carefully planned and executed event. It was a poignant one for many, as N.R. Narayana Murthy demitted the office of chairman of his beloved Infosys. Amid myriad emotions, I could not help but notice how smooth and well-organized the event was. The responsibility baton seemed to pass seamlessly from one department to another—HR, Facilities, Security, Computers and Communications, a multitude of volunteers, the catering partners and, of course, the gracious Masters of Ceremonies. The event ran with clockwork precision, the responsibilities were well-defined, with each stakeholder anticipating the other’s requirement proactively and moving quite beautifully in tandem. The secret, if you ask me, is meticulous planning and a well-oiled, highly efficient, cross-functional team.
A cross-functional team may be defined as—and I have no truck with that—one “comprising at least three members from diverse functional entities working together towards a common goal”. The power of a high-performing, cross-functional team has to be seen to be believed. A valued colleague, a peer from the line function, would jokingly say, “Hema always got us to do her work.” I completely endorse his point of view because I am a complete believer in the philosophy of designing systems and processes not just for the people, but also by the people they are intended for.
I have seen and participated in ivory tower policy formulations, and more often than not, seen such policies take birth and die equally quickly when they hit the road of reality.
Inclusive growth: Ivory tower policy formulations don’t work.
One such quick burial comes to mind. It was a glorious July. The appraisal cycles were just beginning, and an all-HR-designed new appraisal system was ready for its “first demo out” in the extended business manager meet. The HR team had invoked their deep insights into the business requirements and theories of performance management to design this new version. The scheme had also been blessed by the powers that be in the chain of command—so it was not surprising that there was a complacent confidence among the ivory tower designers when the presentation actually started. But that was soon a thing of the past. The HR veterans turned defensive one after the other as internal customers tore into the scheme. The operational issues seemed numerous, the appraisal distribution curve was impractical, the angst was evident, and we had to withdraw licking our collective HR wounds to fight another day.
We had learnt our lesson. We went back to the drawing board, but not before we had invited a cross-functional team with representation from various parts of the organization to participate in designing the system with us. The result—a lot of debate, a lot of discussion and, yes, more elapsed time, but at the end of the day, a product which wove into its design the perspectives of the customer, the data providers and, of course, the process owner. This time, the customers themselves championed the product, and the passage to approval was indeed a smooth one.
Cross-functional teams are lifesavers—whether it is in designing a policy or a new product, overhauling a broken process, planning an exciting and memorable event or even tackling the chronic issue of attrition. Over the years, management thinkers have espoused them and successful organizations have embraced them. Take, for instance, Motorola University’s powerful Cross-Functional Process Mapping to reduce cycle time and bottlenecks for key processes. It leverages the power of synergy with a team composition that has individuals from different departments to analyse “As Is” processes and recommend “Should Be” processes to eliminate wasteful steps, thus reducing cycle time. Corporate folklore has many successful examples of cross-functional teaming—Northwestern Mutual Life’s pioneering work with cross-functional teams, Ford’s Eight Disciplines problem solving methodology and 3M’s new product development process are all cases in point. It is these success stories that fuelled the popularity of cross-functional teams.
But as in the case of all magic potions, cross-functional teams too have to follow certain protocol and prerequisites for them to succeed:
• Credible representation from across stakeholders and from deep within the organization, with the right mix of experience and expertise, is critical
• A strong sponsor who will be accountable for the team and its results and who has the ability to bring to the table senior management backing and budget approvals
• Clear shared goal for success, with a strong understanding of what’s in it for various stakeholders
• Sound programme management involving the tracking of minutes and action items, regular reviews and adherence to timelines
• Strong communication lines within the team. Communication or the lack of it can make or mar a cross-functional team initiative
• A beginning and an end
• Celebration of milestones and successes, and the sharing of praise
And conversely, a cross-functional team fails when members’ egos come into play. Posturing and power games are anathema to cross-functional team success. I have seen a powerful cross-functional team which had all the elements of success—the raison d’être, the resources and the clout—fail only because of multiple egos and power centres. That, combined with a weak programme management, quietly sounded the death knell on what could have been a strong success story.
All cross-functional teams go through growth pangs, with their own forming, storming, norming and performing stages, as aptly described in his classic Team Development Model by American psychologist Bruce Tuckman. But an experienced facilitator can guide the team through these stormy seas.
Someone wisely remarked: “Cross-functional teams are the arteries of organizations today.” And one could not but concur with Vadim Kotelnikov, an experienced coach, when he says: “In the era of systemic innovation, it is more important for an organization to be cross-functionally excellent than functionally excellent.”
Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations. She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Ltd.
Write to Hema at hrmatters@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Aug 28 2011. 08 30 PM IST