The previous post in this two-part series covered some of the considerations for the formation of cross-functional teams that are tasked with an initiative or a project. In this post, we will discuss challenges and opportunities in the ongoing management of projects. My focus will be cross functional teams, particularly in a matrix structured organization.

These insights are given from the perspective of a project sponsor and key contributor on such teams, not a project manager.

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A few words on ongoing management

Once an effective team has been put together and the shared charter is established, the project is ready for launch. Before plunging in, reflect on ways to ensure effective management of the project.

The difficulty of managing cross-functional initiatives is compounded when these span long periods of time, are comprised of representatives from a large number of functional groups or are carried out in organizations that have a number of ongoing projects. Attention should be given to how the team operates as well as how it interfaces with the project sponsors and decision makers who have control on the project resources and can intervene at any time.

Cultivating participation

Just as team members bring different skills and experience to the project, they are also driven by different interests, whether departmental or personal. The ability of any team member to not only contribute but to benefit from the initiative is a great source of motivation, particularly if the individual views the new responsibilities as a supplemental nuisance on an already heavy workload. No matter how strategic the initiative is, the team member will have primary allegiance to their boss or department. Identifying the nuances of such motivations and integrating them into the initiative, even in a small ways, helps establish a common vocabulary that fosters dialogue and trust. This trust will also be important as a time goes by and priorities and motivations (organizational, departmental or personal) change.

Ensuring alignment

Ongoing alignment of the cross-functional team needs to be captured and communicated frequently. This has to be done in greater detail than the initiative’s high level charter. One framework that can be useful in ensuring a team is “on the same page” is to establish a mutually agreed set of key performance indicators (KPIs) for the team and project. Each KPI offers a numerical representation of an element in the initiative’s progress or something deemed important for tracking the project’s health. The full set of KPIs would generally be weighted and aggregated to provide a metric that is relatable and shared by both team members and managers outside the team. Making team members responsible for this metric and giving them ways to impact it will also help to organize the team around success. Large organizations are dropping certain aspects of performance management tactics from their HR practices, but there is still value in using shared and objective metrics when cross-functional teams are involved. In fact, it is at the team level that these are most meaningful. TeamFit, the company that inspired me to write this series of posts is demonstrating this with Project Pulse.

Strong risk management

Projects that span longer periods and especially those involving greater number of departments are exposed to changing (or conflicting) priorities on resource allocation, to shifts in external factors (regulatory, competitive etc.), changes in scope and the fluidity of sentiments both among team members and executives. Continuity of resources is critical to maintaining knowledge and team member engagement in the project and to keeping momentum. Furthermore, initiatives that involve or have high dependency on technologies or processes that are novel to the organization add another dimension of risk, especially if third parties are involved. This greater number of variables requires project managers, champions and sponsors to be closely attuned to risks originating from these different dynamics.

Maintaining momentum

With long, cross-departmental initiatives, even with gradual progress it can be hard for all team members to realize achievements, especially given the amount of “noise”, documentation and collaboration complex projects tend to involve. It is important to recognize contributions as they occur and to maintain momentum. Rallying the team around clear, quantitative and achievable short term goals, or “quick wins”, can help maintain the energy and camaraderie required to pursue the larger vision. One possible approach, already implemented across many industries, is to apply agile practices (such as the Scrum framework), originally formulated for software development projects.

Another potential area worth considering is applying a periodic (and anonymous) survey (including qualitative input) to gauge the sentiment of team members around the initiative, the effectiveness of the team, their satisfaction and other factors, or as TeamFit says, to track project pulse.

Running effective meetings

In addition to other forms of collaboration, meetings are a necessary evil for coordination and discussion among a large team. The topic of running effective meetings is probably covered in endless publications so we will only mention a few ideas that pertain to symptoms of cross-functional teams.

Maintaining momentum and alignment requires frequent meetings, some including the whole team and others with a subset of the group focusing on a specific project stream or problem. Departmental affiliation, other work obligations and geographical distribution raise challenges for the scheduling of and participation in those meetings. It is therefore vital to communicate the expectation of consistent and active participation, with both the team member and their departmental manager.

There are various ways to keep meetings effective. There are the obvious ones of setting an agenda, constraining the time allocated per topic and avoiding delving into issues that eat up a lot of valuable meeting time (aka rat holes). Such items can be moved to a “parking lot” for later discussion. One of the greater challenges of cross-functional team meetings is the threat of multi-tasking. This has been compounded in recent years by remote participation (via conference calls) and our excessive use (and connectivity) with our mobile devices. Requiring all participants to put away all devices and mandating webcams for remote participants can greatly curb multi-tasking. A positive yet practical way to ensure timely, consistent and effective participation is to establish a team approved penalty system that will benefit future team activities. For example, the team can implement something like a ‘tardy jar’ where those late to a team meeting contribute a pre-set amount of money to a fund that will be used for treats or to celebrate a project milestone.

Providing executive visibility

Generally speaking, executives seek to know three things about the initiatives such that they can proactively support smooth execution.

  • First, that the initiative is progressing according to expectations (e.g. reaching established milestones) and is projected to meet the business objectives set out.
  • Second, that budget and resources are consumed according to plan meaning that allocated budget is both sufficient and efficiently used such that there was no opportunity cost for the organization.
  • Third, that risks are being tracked, managed and mitigated. Standard dashboards (such as the KPIs mentioned previously) can be used for this purpose.

Elaborating on the third element: given the unique resource allocation, continuity, participation and engagement issues of cross-functional teams it is critical to summarize this information for both sponsors and relevant executives in an honest and open way. Only then will we be able to address issues early and reduce the need for escalation and intervention.

Hopefully this two-part series contributed some ideas or stimulated you to think of how to better build and manage cross-functional teams for better outcomes.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Adi Kabazo is the owner of Objective Innovation (http://www.objectiveinnovation.com), a firm dedicated to guiding technology businesses with their product and channel strategies as well as implementing customer focused product and marketing practices to provide greater value to their customers and users, facilitate new business models and promote scalable sales and delivery operations.

For much of his 20+ year career Mr. Kabazo has held key product and marketing strategy leadership roles for innovative software and hardware technology companies. Mr. Kabazo strengths in business planning, commercialization and operational delivery were key to growth, customer success and in several cases acquisitions that resulted in significant return for shareholders.

Adi holds a Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering from Tel-Aviv University in Israel and received his Master’s degree in Business Administration from the Sauder School of Business at UBC. He was also the co-founder of Vancouver ProductCamp and is past Chair for the British Columbia Technology Industry Association (BCTIA) Product Management Group.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:New_Zealand_national_rugby_league_team_(26_October_2008).jpg#/media/File:New_Zealand_national_rugby_league_team_(26_October_2008).jpg

The New Zealand rugby league team performing the haka at the 2008 World Cup.