How to Lead Effective Cross-Functional Teams

Focusing on three central tasks can help leaders foster better collaboration with cross-functional teams.

Reading Time: 4 min 


Digital transformation is knocking down silos that have long separated functions within an organization. To succeed, adapt, and innovate at the pace of modern business, disparate units often need to be part of the same project from the beginning, ensuring that their needs are met without delaying the launch of a new initiative.

As MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte explored in Coming of Age Digitally, effective leaders must get people “to collaborate across boundaries” more than ever.

It’s a tough task. How do you manage a team when only some of its employees report to you? How do multiple managers share the responsibilities and challenges? If there’s a dispute, who has final say?

Too often, cross-functional projects fall apart. McKinsey reports that in many companies, “ownership of processes and information is fragmented and zealously guarded, roles are designed around parochial requirements, and the resulting internal complexity hinders sorely needed cross-business collaboration.”

But when organizations tackle this problem, they can see profound effects on the bottom line. MIT SMR and Deloitte’s survey of more than 3,500 managers found that “the most digitally advanced companies — those successfully deploying digital technologies and capabilities to improve processes, engage talent across the organization, and drive new value-generating business models — are far more likely to perform cross-functional collaboration.”

I’ve spent the past two years as a leader on a large, cross-functional project focused on improving our customer relationship management (CRM) system. It has required getting groups across the organization to change and scale a critical piece of our infrastructure. We pulled together people from operations, risk, revenue, tech, product, finance, international, legal, and compliance.

I found early on that coleading this project successfully meant focusing on three central tasks, all of which revolve around communication.

Persuade Using Common Pain Points

To make any cross-functional project work, you first have to get broad agreement around the core problem to solve. This can be trickier than it sounds. People who have spent years in silos may not be used to hearing about the challenges other departments face — or, even with good intentions, might not have the bandwidth to think much about them.

It’s important to first find people’s pain points by gathering information from stakeholders in each department about what they need from the project.


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Comment (1)
Kevin Hogan
While open and honest communication, finding common ground, and being fair in resource negotiation are all necessary and helpful, I have found that spending energy and effort in building trust based relationships across the leadership team and supporting trust throughout the delivery teams (internal as well as external suppler) creates the best scenario for project and program success. 
I learned that 30 years ago and have found it to be true for Process Re-engineering , Technology Transformation/ Software Implementation and even Outsourcing projects and programs.