Imagine getting a baseball, football and tennis player together with a gymnast, cross-country skier and skydiver and assigning them the task of coming up with a new sport. It sounds pretty wild, but wouldn't you love to know what they invent?

Putting a cross-functional team together is similar. The cross-functional team definition is a group of employees with different areas of expertise who are sometimes even at different levels, charged with working together to solve a problem or complete a specific task or project.

Cross-Functional Collaboration

The idea behind cross-functional teams is to draw from different areas to address an issue that affects the company as a whole. Most likely, you wouldn’t use a cross-functional team to address a staff shortage in the accounting department or spate of on-the-job injuries in the construction department. While these things can affect the company as a whole, they can be handled more efficiently at the department level.

However, if you’re looking for innovative ideas for becoming more competitive or an integrated set of procedures for complying with new regulations that apply to your industry, then a cross-functional team might be the way to go.

Putting together a group of employees with different viewpoints, experience and expertise can lead to creative ways of solving old problems and original suggestions for new products, services, procedures and strategies.

Cross-Functional Team Leadership

While you want everyone on the team to feel equal, it does help to have a team leader or facilitator. You can assign one or better yet task the team members with appointing one themselves.

Having one person responsible for keeping the team members on task and for communicating their progress helps prevent chaos. A good leader can also make sure that quieter team members are not being ignored and lower-ranking employees aren’t being dismissed by higher-ranking employees.

Cross-Functional Team Pros

Especially if you've never worked on a cross-functional team before, collaborating with people from other parts of the company can be exciting and eye opening. Intentionally or not, people tend to make certain assumptions about other groups: The IT folks are nerdy, the salespeople are aggressive and the compliance department is full of wannabe cops.

It can come as a pleasant surprise to everyone on the team when their co-workers defy these stereotypes and struggle with some of the same work challenges that they do. Finding common ground can lead to cohesion, cooperation and understanding. These are exactly the elements you want in a team that’s working toward a common goal.

Cross-Functional Team Cons

While a lot of good can come from cross-functional collaboration, things can go south too. Competition instead of collaboration is one development you want to avoid. Let’s say you’ve charged your cross-functional team with coming up with ideas for new products you can carry to better compete in your market.

The salespeople on the team might push for anything and everything that they think they can sell without considering what it will cost the company to carry the new products. The accounting department might veto everything because the company is doing OK already. The people who receive deliveries and stock the shelves may push for new inventory that would be easier for them to manage, with less of an eye on what it will cost or how easy it will be to sell.

It’s natural for people to be protective of their own self-interests. However, a healthy cross-functional team discards individual agendas and pushes beyond individual comfort levels to work toward a solution that will benefit the company as a whole without compromising any one person or department. Ways to create and maintain this kind of cross-functional team aren’t often addressed. Consider these six secrets to cross-functional team collaboration that will encourage a healthy and productive team that delivers.

1. Build Some Structure

Throwing together a group of employees from different departments or job descriptions and charging them with solving the company’s retention problem without any further guidance can lead to chaos and yield no useful solutions. However, throwing a group of employees together with accurate data, an agenda and a deadline can be productive and fruitful.

2. Don't Overdo It

While some structure will get things moving, you don’t want to direct the team on every single detail. Too much structure will squelch creativity and make people feel like they’re doing your bidding rather than managing their own process. Provide them with an agenda for their first meeting that looks something like this:

  1. Introductions and icebreakers
  2. Review fact sheet and read aloud the issue the group is to address
  3. Decide on a team leader
  4. Discuss milestones

Then, leave them alone. Presumably, you chose people you trust and know well. Let them figure out the rest.

3. Have the Team Set Milestones 

Milestones are interim goals that lead to the project’s completion. When you’re refinishing a piece of furniture, you don’t just slap on a new coat of varnish. You clean it first, then you sand it and then you dust it. Only then do you apply new varnish.

When interim goals aren’t set, it’s too easy to let things slide and then frantically throw something together at the last minute. It’s human nature. Ask your team to figure out what their milestones will be and to assign their own dates. As long as the ultimate goal is reached on time, trust their process.

4. Request Periodic Reports

It’s a good idea to have the team’s leader report to you after each milestone is reached. This gives you a chance to intervene and redirect the team if things are headed in a direction that’s not productive. By asking the team leader open-ended questions about how things are going, you’ll get a picture of how well the team is functioning.

5. Encourage Empathy in Team Members

Some people are naturally more empathetic than others. They’re more able to identify psychologically with the thoughts or feelings of others. If team members are able to empathize with other team members, the urge to compete softens, and solutions that benefit everyone are easier to come by. While you can’t teach empathy, you can encourage people to find common ground.

No, you’re not going to ask your employees to do the trust exercise of falling backward into a co-worker’s arms. You're going to give the team leader a short list of suggestions that she can use to encourage people to reach mutual understanding. Suggestions can be as simple as asking each team member what her toughest challenge was since the group last met or what unexpected thing happened in her department last week. Ask the team leader to come up with additional ideas of her own.

6. Weigh the Wisdom of HR

Whether to include someone from HR in your cross-functional team is up to you. It may seem like a no brainer when you’re charging the team with tackling a company-wide issue and coming up with a company-wide solution. HR will likely have to get involved at some point. However, know that many people think of HR as “the man.”

Having the HR manager on the team could have the same stifling effect as putting yourself on the team. Instead, you could include an employee who doesn’t work in the HR department but has basic HR knowledge. Alternatively, you could have the team attend a HR workshop to get a crash course on the most critical HR principles of nondiscrimination and zero tolerance for any type of harassment.

It’s About Balance

If this is your first time putting together a cross-functional team, you’ll save yourself a lot of grief if you educate yourself beforehand about cross-functional team preparation, dynamics and how to repair breakdowns. You might also want to look into the various cross-functional team apps that are available.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the boss being there and even taking the helm, but people tend to feel free to brainstorm and take risks when the boss isn’t around. So, it’s a trade off. Yes, the team might be more organized if you’re there, but your presence might cause them to miss out on some really great ideas.