Home > How to Build Unified Cross-Functional Teams in Today’s Hybrid IT Landscape

How to Build Unified Cross-Functional Teams in Today’s Hybrid IT Landscape

How To Build A Cross-functional Hybrid IT Team
Data continues to be a major driver of business operations, and as a result, it’s becoming more common to see cross-functional teams working within IT. In 2022, for example, data-related projects enforcing data hygiene, data integrity, or data security continue to lead most functional leaders’ investments. CIOs commonly believe data security, data recovery, and data management initiatives are most valuable to the organization and create scopes requiring more active collaboration and discussion across departments. Distributed teams have also become a more common aspect of conducting business thanks to a more globalized and interconnected world. As organizations expand into global markets, the limits for success are often dependent on how well teams come together and adopt processes within distributed settings. As a senior director of IT, I think about this often. How can I enable my global team to communicate effectively across various time zones and business mentalities? How can I build a setting where my teams collaborate openly—where their individual insights and perspectives help unify instead of divide? The answer lies in the successful development of a cross-functional team. In the enterprise sector, I define a cross-functional team as a group of individual stakeholders with varying roles and responsibilities who work across departments toward a common goal. The complexity of global enterprise infrastructures requires a high-performing cross-functional team—with expertise around various on-premises, hybrid, and cloud systems—to modernize and remain competitive in today’s markets. Let’s explore how to create a successful one.

Types of Cross-Functional Teams in IT

There are many types of IT teams in the industry, and from my seat, I’ve seen each one find success. IT teams can be operationally driven, project-driven, or both, depending on the role they play in the organization. Operationally driven IT teams typically provide triage-type services to the organization and focus on maintaining key systems and applications. Generally, these teams are functionally specific and maintain minimal interactions with other departments. The objectives of a project-driven IT team, on the other hand, usually lead to much more interaction with other departments. Once teams come together to review objectives, determine scope, and break down requirements, they can determine the value each function brings to the project and any existing gaps. One method for influencing more project-driven mentalities is by using subject-matter experts (SMEs)—especially those who operate cross-functionally themselves, with general knowledge across the various sets of expertise needed for analysis, diagnosis, and solutioning. Identifying an SME to lead a team or project—or inviting one from another department to lead—is one way to influence cross-functional dynamics with others to accomplish a common goal or outcome.  This strategy can also be effective at the executive level. An executive with cross-functional skills or general SME experience can help give a project proper funding and staffing because they understand cross-departmental dependencies more deeply. Depending on the size of your organization, cross-functional teams may be a common or uncommon concept. Different perspectives need to be taken into consideration as people come together across functions. Herein lies the key value of a cross-functional team: you can more effectively analyze an objective and quantify an outcome through the lens of multiple backgrounds, skill sets, and expertise. In uncommon settings, cross-functional teams require more direct management by an experienced leader who can remove barriers, communicate effectively, and hold the right level of accountability across functions. Take a moment to understand where your company sits on this spectrum and look to identify or hire leaders in these areas accordingly. The more deeply embedded legacy processes or methods are into a company culture, the more important it may be to seek the perspective of a leader who’s a newcomer or outsider to the company.

Roles and Responsibilities You’ll Need on Your Cross-Functional Team

Determining the roles necessary in a cross-functional setting can be challenging. Agile has also put a twist on traditional cross-functional teams. According to “The 15th Annual State of Agile Report,” more than 94% of business leaders have adopted agile practices in some fashion. Don’t let the many certifications and formal structures of agile be a barrier to your team’s adoption of Agile frameworks. At its core, Agile is simply a mindset for delivering work through iterative and phased development models. Your company can shift to these models today by thinking of deliverables, projects, and roadmaps more like software (something released externally in general availability (GA), evaluated for performance, and updated continuously). One model from Agile methodologies I’ve found important to adopt is scrums. Conceptually, scrums create a natural setting to bring in perspectives across departments and teams. Scrums are open forums for discussion and are typically framed around the goal of gathering status updates across a team of individuals who represent different aspects of the project. In a technical example, a scrum can have technical members like SREs, architects, QA testers, and SecOps engineers who work together on a specific increment or feature. Similarly, you can have a marketing scrum team with SMEs from content creation, web development, business applications, and IT who all work to deliver an increment or feature. The possibilities are endless, as this concept can be used in any setting where incremental delivery is desired. The best approach to determining the resource plan for your cross-functional team is to start with the end in mind. Utilizing a theological approach, we can start to bring clarity to high-level objectives by synthesizing the plan based on the desired outcome (or specific end goal). By introducing a common end goal, the team’s focal point shifts from an individualistic approach to a more collectivist approach as they start working together to meet the objectives. Once you start outlining the objectives, certain roles will emerge, and any gaps (such as missing SMEs or conflicting priorities) will become visible. As the gaps are eliminated and the team starts to come together, you’ll gain new perspectives, which may present new limitations the team will need to review. These cause-and-effect scenarios result in further expansion of resource planning and help set a reasonable expectation for delivery. This is a logical approach to uncovering the unknown, and it can help build cohesion and clarity for team members in the process. It's often helpful for me to keep in mind the personnel (and hence the roles and responsibilities) on your team can also develop iteratively. In instances where the outcome isn’t clearly known, a cross-functional team may start with a few team members who represent a core set of functions. As requirements become clearer, the problems better identified, and the priorities better understood, the team can be expanded to include other functional roles as needed.

How to Shift to a Cross-Functional Team Model

Accountability, communication, transparency, and—of course—scalability are some of the justifications for adopting more cross-functional team models. However, in 2015, the Standish Group reported only 29% of organizations achieved success on cross-functional projects after a change in organization or process. As organizations shift towards more Agile mindsets, maintaining alignment is critical. This is why internal alignment has become a more frequent topic of discussion, especially at the executive level. Here are some things to keep in mind to ensure you end up on the right side of the success equation.

Build RACI Charts to Clearly Define Roles and Responsibilities

Given the remote nature of distributed teams and the complexity of establishing a cross-functional team, clear communication is imperative. The levels of communication and collaboration your teams realize hinge on a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities. A great tool I often use to deliver this common understanding across large teams is a RACI matrix, especially when presented in a scrum setting with visibility for all cross-functional team members. A complete RACI matrix—with responsible, accountable, considered, and informed labels for each individual team member—can give your team the needed baseline and compass to involve others and gather their own alignment on a specific task. I like to expand the typical RACI matrix by also including an “approver” label to help identify decision-makers on the team who can influence a decision, limiting any blockers, and furthering the initiative across the specified timeline.

Create a Culture Where Accountability Is Embraced, Not Enforced

Accountability will noticeably increase among team members as collaboration improves, cohesion evolves, and the team members begin to trust one another. The team needs to reach a point where they’re invested in the success of their peers, knowing they can’t succeed without their contributions. Creating a team culture takes time. In many cases, distributed teams span across geographies. This creates the opportunity for team members from dissimilar backgrounds, cultural dimensions, and perspectives to come together to achieve a common goal. For teams spanning across nations, this presents a different set of challenges than the ones facing a distributed team within the same nation. In these circumstances, creating a local team culture through humor, direct (fluid and solid) forms of communications, and route contact can allow the team to overcome cultural challenges associated with this form of cross-functional team. In addition, praising the success of the team (not just the individuals) helps the team come together and creates a positive environment. This also allows the team to naturally hold themselves accountable as they work through progress and retrospectives.

Iterate and Stay Flexible

Iteration is the foundation of the Agile framework. In all settings, an Agile approach will allow teams to stay flexible throughout the project or workstream. It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone weeks ahead. Agile allows you to make an iterative plan built on specific increments (or minimal viable products) capable of being delivered (or shipped), immediately providing value to its consumers. This counters the traditional waterfall approach of waiting many months to achieve value on an initiative while controlling the future. I can’t emphasize enough the need to stay flexible. You should still be rigorous when breaking down requirements and understand consumers’ needs may change down the road. The team must be structured so it can quickly respond to the needs of the business and maintain a consistent value stream.

How to Facilitate and Optimize Your Cross-Functional Team Dynamics

Today, there are tools in the marketplace built to help structure, monitor, and control nearly every aspect of our lives. To facilitate and optimize your cross-functional team dynamics, look for tools capable of helping you maintain alignment, deliver communications, and influence collaboration. Through a unified platform, teams can consolidate perspectives and highlight areas of interest they should consider or prioritize cross-departmentally. In this framing, shared data and metrics become the mutual ground for understanding, which helps tell a better story of the situation at hand. In an operational environment, teams may be struggling for resources on a given system. Similarly, in a project environment, teams can use tools to help identify the root cause of a problem within the environment. They can then use this information to build a project charter focused on fixing such problems, ultimately improving the overall health and condition of the environment. In both settings, the user creates a proactive approach to monitoring and improving their business. According to a Forbes article commenting on recent predictions from Gartner, cloud services are expected to reach $482 billion in 2022 (up from $313B in 2020). This means more organizations will be adopting some form of cloud technology/hybrid IT solution within their infrastructure. With the expansion of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), more organizations will also continue to adopt services with an “always-on” mindset. These trends increase the need to ensure proper monitoring and observability is present within cloud and hybrid environments to ensure the team has the right visibility across their technical landscape. As you embark on your own transformation journey, employing the right tactics and tools can help you and your business leaders overachieve in their performance metrics. As is often the case, greatness is ultimately achieved through the journey.

Additional Resource

Dr. Humberto Amador
Dr. Amador spent ten years as a systems engineer focused on virtualization and storage systems. He holds a bachelor’s in forensic science with a focus…
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