For most of us in our workplaces, there’s no avoiding the presence of cross-functional teams. Too many of our projects and programs cross over departmental or divisional boundary lines to vanquish these groupings of often prickly, over-taxed individuals. And heck, the potential is always there for greatness.

Of course, finding something that resembles greatness from a cross-functional team often resembles a journey with trials and tribulations worthy of Odysseus. First, focus on creating cross-functional team fitness and then start the push for greatness.

5 Ideas to Help You Strengthen Cross-Functional Team Fitness:

1. Recruit and train a sponsor. Nothing says “important” like the presence of a motivated, focused executive willing to throw her political heft and gray matter behind an initiative. If it’s important or strategic, run, don’t walk to engage and train an executive sponsor.

And seriously, don’t assume every executive understands the role and responsibilities. Done right, the role is a well-established difference maker. Dig-in and do the research and collaborate with your executive to clarify the role, responsibilities and mutual accountabilities.

2. Let the team members define your role as initiative leader. I never get tired of recommending the use of “Angela’s Question” for team leaders: “At the end of our project when we are successful, what will you say that I did?”

Make this more than an exercise. Use the output to codify your role and ask them to hold you accountable to it. This extreme act of trust on your part is instrumental in creating an effective working environment on your team. Power tip: have your team members repeat this process to ensure role clarity is universal!

3. Define key behaviors early in the team’s formation. Some leaders work hard to establish the values that will govern overall team membership. I have no qualms with this approach however, my preference is to immediately teach useful skills that enhance group performance from day one.

As team lead, I understand I must facilitate two critical processes: how to talk and how to decide. I work to model, facilitate, and teach these behaviors immediately, emphasizing the performance-enhancing power of getting these behaviors right. I follow suit by letting the team define the rest of the behavioral values that will guide the team.

4. Lead with a twist. Change the game for your cross-functional team. I appreciate the power of capturing the hearts and minds of my team members through non-traditional approaches. A few include:

  • Take a team on a field trip. Some are practical (customer visits). Others are creative—including museums, movies etc.
  • Challenge the group to learn more about the topic through an association exercise. Find a firm outside our industry that is great at what we are trying to do and study and report back on how they succeed and what we might learn from them.
  • Invite a group of customers to join us and share their unique perspectives on the problem we are striving to solve.
  • Invite an expert in the discipline we are focused on to help us understand the current state of research.

Frankly, even though your team’s purpose may be fairly routine (e.g. product launch), you don’t have to keep the process routine. Make it a learning and mind-expanding experience. And by the way, you’ll capture the attention and hearts and minds of your team members in the process.

5. Quality check the basics. The mountain of research out there on teams suggests there are some fundamentals that must be present to support effective team development, including:

  • Clear and compelling purpose—in the absence of this, it’s just another regular spot on everyone’s overloaded calendars.
  • Supportive organization—see also that point on recruiting and training a sponsor.
  • Enabling structure—the sponsor will help and you as the leader own getting this right)
  • Clear membership—membership is exclusive. Porous boundaries detract from team performance and development.
  • Coaching—yes, we all need some help. Don’t discount the benefits of an objective, capable outsider evaluating team dynamics and providing frank feedback and feedforward.

The above five are blocking and tackling. Don’t overlook them or team health and performance will suffer.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There’s an art and a science to developing and leading cross-functional teams that work. No list of behaviors can capture all of the issues necessary for success. Consider the items above as important exercises in cultivating overall cross-functional team fitness. Use them in great health.

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Leadership Books by Art Petty