Moving from Silos to Cross-functional Teams
Although most people need no clarification on the two terms – silos and cross-functional teams – we’ll start with some explaining just to make sure we’re on the same page.
Silo is a term used frequently to describe a team who works isolated from the rest of the world. The only interaction is transactional: they receive some inputs and must produce some outputs. There are multiple interpretations of the term but we’ll settle for this one.
Cross-functional teams is a concept that we’ll explain a little later after we’re done with the whole silo approach discussion.
What are some of the explanations for this silo approach?
First, and probably the best justification is specialisation. If you are an engineer, probably you belong to an engineering department which has a manager whose job is to utilise you. Keeping you busy is probably a better way to put it. And because you are a good engineer, you want to focus on engineering. You don’t want to waste your valuable time with issues like product development, value delivered to the customer or even listening to what your end customers think about the product. Not to mention that all your life you’ve been educated and trained to be a specialist. Go deep and others will take care of everything else.
Another reason is management. It is much easier to manage a resource pool of specialists and allocate them on specialised tasks than to be concerned with the value of their end result. Funny enough, in many companies you have utilisation targets and timesheets. Nothing against timesheets if used well. But way to often they are just there to keep track of busyness.
Execution mode is another big contributor. As a specialist you are assigned tasks and your only job is to execute them. The product has no value for the client in the end? Not your problem; you’ve done your job impeccably. It is much easier to just execute something than to decide what should be executed. And many people find this extremely comfortable.
And since we mentioned management earlier, let’s get back to the topic and refer to one of the main functions of management: control. For a manager is much easier to control work and track task completion than to take the responsibility for the end result.
Tracking and controlling are not necessarily bad things. Except of course when you are tracking the wrong metrics. And good example of bad tracking is work with no regard of what you get out of it. Some work might produce something valuable while some, while necessary or required, might produce nothing useful for the end customer. It might come as a surprise to some but our customers don’t want us to spend the whole day in meetings or replying to emails. And that’s just an example of non-value-adding activities. Another one that’s really big is waiting time. We track time spent working but we don’t track the waiting time. And that too generates costs and adds delays. Want to learn something really scary? Try to calculate the total time you wait for a meeting or conference call to start.
Why is this bad?
People are usually very busy and work hard but the results are just not there. In addition of poor results this leads also to low morale and lack of commitment from the teams. Equally bad is to have to measure some totally irrelevant metrics like how busy people are. While the amount of work may have had an impact on the amount of results ages ago, we all know it is not the case today. It’s not supposed to be about working more but about working smarter.
Why is moving to a cross-functional team is a solution
Again let’s take care of definitions first. Not that it’s something simple because here too, you might find different interpretations. But generally speaking, a cross functional team is a team where you have all the skills and competencies required to deliver an end result. And deliver means the final product with no need of further operations or processing. That’s the cross-functional part. The team part should be easier to explain: some individuals working together toward a common goal. That common goal is greater and more important than the personal goals of the individuals. It is basic knowledge but still many people and organisations struggle with these definitions.
What are the benefits associated with cross-functional teams?
It is proven that cross-functional teams are more efficient and more effective. We’ll go into details later to see how they manage to do that. Also, the people are more motivated because they have a sense of fulfilment. And because of this feeling they are more committed, hence more efficient.
But then, how do you get there?
There’s not recipe or cookbook to achieve this. However, there are a few best practices that increase considerably your chances of becoming such a team.
Focusing on the end result seems to get the most votes for being the key ingredient. In simple words, this means focus more on the outcome of the activity rather than on the activity itself. Sort of the opposite of the previously-discussed silo approach where the focus is on executing a specialised task. You still care about the work and the process, but you start with what you need to achieve and then design or re-design the work you have to do to be as efficient as possible. And not just the work itself but also the itinerary of the deliverable. It is useless to improve your personal efficiency if your outcome is blocked somewhere down the road. Putting the result first and the activity second might have other desired consequences. People might actually reconsider the activities or the way they perform the work to achieve the end result. This is how you get to increased efficiency.
Establish common goals is crucial to becoming a cross-functional team. If you reward the programmer based on how many line of code have been written (yes, it’s still done!) or by how many hours they logged into the timesheet tool your will get just work. If you reward the tester based on how many bugs they discover you’ll have people who hope the code is broken. The only common goal a team can have is the end result. So instead of tracking individual metrics you make sure everybody is motivated to contribute toward that common goal.
Reaching common goals cannot be achieved without collaboration. Unlike specialisation and expertise, collaboration is about contributing to helping others and requesting help when in need. In our day to day activities today it is very unlikely that we can achieve something meaningful and valuable by ourselves. For the result of our work to become valuable others will have to be involved. And it is also our responsibility to involve them and in return to contribute toward that common goal when they need us.
You probably have heard this before but sometimes the best management is no management. Empowerment is another essential element of high efficiency. Whatever your job is, it is complex enough to require lots of decisions every day. And if you cannot make those decisions by yourself or have to ask for permission or escalate, the overall efficiency will be compromised. Generally speaking, every decision-making process requires knowledge and power. As it happens those who are confronted with the decision have the knowledge and the insights but might not have the power. So, they “delegate” the decision to their superior. Who, has the power but rarely the insights. It becomes obvious then that the process should be reversed. We don’t ask managers to decide for us, we ask for empowerment to decide ourselves. It is much easier to transfer power than it is to transfer knowledge. This is why leadership is considered to be a must for these teams. You don’t manage a cross-functional team. You show them the big picture, you make sure they have all the support they need and you leave them alone.
The last on our list, which maybe should have been the first is eliminating non-value-adding activities. A cross-functional team has everything under their control. So, things like how much time should be spent on communications (meetings, emails, etc.) is more or less up to them. They should not be dragged into useless meetings or have to deal with countless emails. Also, they should be able to manage how the deliverable is being worked on by multiple members of the team without waiting time or bottlenecks.
Becoming cross-functional is not something that just happens. It requires some effort, willingness and support. Most teams start with just trying to improve their efficiency a little bit. And then a little more and then even more. The best practice here is to give yourself some objectives you want to focus on in the next couple of weeks. Hopefully some of the ideas mentioned above will give you some inspiration. At the end of the cycle do a quick review. What did you decide to do and what did you actually do. Iterate and improve. This is a journey with no final destination. Because you can always be a little more efficient. And being a cross-functional team is just a tool that will move you one step into the right direction.