Evans Incorporated

Establishing a Successful Cross-Functional Team

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By Brit Nanna

Consider this scenario: You were asked to provide change management support for a sizeable international development effort for a foreign government. It entails implementing broad-sweeping reforms affecting multiple departments.  You created a change management strategy and plan you believe will help your client realize its desired outcomes, taking into account every possible challenge you might confront.Like many client environments, you knew the local government was heavily siloed, lacking substantial cross-collaboration between departments.  You consequently incorporated the use of cross-functional teams (CFTs) as a means of overcoming these organizational silos and leveraging team members’ diverse expertise as representatives of multiple governmental departments to improve organizational performance. Months pass and despite your efforts, you now find yourself in the implementation phase, and the CFTs are not delivering the expected benefits. Your change efforts seem to be languishing.

In this scenario, like many others, CFTs are not a panacea to the change management challenges of achieving targeted development outcomes in the public sector.  Their successful implementation faces a variety of obstacles. The 2012 article by Niall Piercy, Wendy Phillips and Michael Lewis discusses a variety of these challenges, arguing that the successful implementation of a CFT can hinge on a variety of factors, including the support of organizational leadership, as well as organizational culture and structures conductive to cross-functional integration.  Successful CFTs also depend on adequate funding support along with the ability to break the status quo and overcome resistance to change. These dependencies expose key challenges to effective CFT implementation discussed below.

When these challenges are addressed during the planning phase, CFTs can be integral to driving transformative and sustainable change necessary to realizing targeted development outcomes both at headquarters and in the field.

Stove-Piped Organizational Structures:

Many governments around the world, at all levels, have a stove-piped public sector, characterized by marked division of labor and tasks with minimal interaction across departments. When attempting change in these environments, it is often difficult to use CFTs successfully, but it is not impossible. In these organizational structures, it is imperative to overcome what may be overarching unwillingness toward CFTs due to potential differences in knowledge and views, which can lead to differing opinions.  Furthermore, departments are often working at cross purposes. This goal incongruity is also likely in such siloed environments, resulting in variances in decision criteria and timelines.

 Lack of Critical Buy-In from Leadership:

Command-and-control organizational structures and environments lead to a marked dependency on senior leadership for successful change. In these command-and-control environments, senior leadership often struggle to heed advice from the CFT and/or ensure the required structural processes are in place to support the CFT’s work. Senior leadership’s buy-in is critical and the motivation and performance of CFTs will likely suffer without a clear and inspirational vision and agenda from senior leadership.  CFTs will also struggle to impact organizational performance and service delivery without sufficient team-building, training and recognition in these top-down organizational structures.  CFT members often contend with balancing their day-to-day responsibilities with the additional CFT duties, requiring senior leadership to release staff from certain responsibilities in order to allow them to focus on successfully implementing change within the organization.

Cultural Resistance to Change

In both domestic and international settings, cultural resistance to change can be found among staff, management, and political resistance born out of frustration and pure opposition. For those lower-level employees often removed from the politics of the organization, it may be a challenge to identify the proper modes of motivation for members of the CFT (especially in situations where there are too many consultants, people, papers, reports etc.).  Apathy and uncertainty also pose a challenge to motivating lower-level employees to participate in CFT’s as they might have seen too many attempts at change fail. Furthermore, in the public sector, one might encounter those employees that are so entrenched in their positions that it is difficult to remove those that are not on board as they are willing to wait it out and wait for the next change. For management, some senior leadership might perceive they have a lot to lose from the anticipated impacts which may influence their openness to change.  Power, control and status concerns also dictate the senior leadership’s level of buy-in and investment in change. At both levels it is critical to identify for each member, “what is in it for me?”

 Building and Maintaining a Culture of (3)

Also in these command-and-control organizations, change is often implemented from the top down and it can be difficult to put forward different ways of thinking especially in terms of productivity that lack that grassroots buy-in. Piercy, Phillips and Lewis (2012) note that if change is not communicated effectively it may promote the traditional view that change is done to lower-level employees by the corporate center.

 Conceptualizations of Change

The success of CFTs is also dependent on the conceptualization of change and how it is perceived in that particular environment. Like in various organizations across the United States, the idea of change in international settings can also be just as unsettling. Whether it is redefining change as “business readiness” or finding other angles from which to approach it, the concept of change and how it is communicated to CFTs or otherwise is another critical consideration. How the members of the CFT understand change will also dictate their level of investment and efficacy in their work to implement the change.

In sum, while the implementation of CFT’s and change efforts may be done with the best of intentions, there are a number of considerations to take into account when seeking to implement them successfully.  This is not to detract from the value of the CFT’s as they stand to strongly benefit any change effort and there are opportunities for overcoming these challenges, which include:

  • Ensuring there is a clearly articulated vision and agenda indicating the target future state of the agency or organization, and maintaining a laser focus on this state throughout the change effort
  • Using what Piercy, Phillips, and Lewis (2012) term, a ‘hybrid model,’ in building your CFT in which members are not solely cherry-picked but also have the opportunity to volunteer, enhancing the credibility of the program through their bolstered sense of ownership
  • Communicating to senior leadership how it benefits them as leaders to relinquish some control in order to empower CFTs in their change efforts
  • Empowering CFT members as change agents by identifying and channeling their underlying motivations when communicating the value of change, and building their capacity for change
  • Identifying new ways to promote participation in the CFT; such as offering training to help increase pay grades, providing learning opportunities, or framing it as an opportunity to strengthen one’s resume
  • And perhaps most importantly, developing a change strategy at the onset that addresses the human factors as well as the right technical solution, expediting the adoption of new systems/ways of working and managing dips in productivity (For more information about Evans CAARMA methodology please select the following link).

When working to achieve key development outcomes it is important to understand that delivering the right technical solution is never enough as human factors also have to be considered. In doing so, cross-functional teams provide an opportunity to achieve transformative and sustainable change. What are your thoughts on establishing a successful cross-functional team?


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