Cross-functional teams were once the domain of short-term or discrete projects – set up for a few months or a couple of years, and disbanded once the job was done. But the need for greater agility and responsiveness and an increased focus on the customer is driving structural change in organisations and their marketing teams. Executives know that functional silos slow the flow of information and make collaboration more difficult. Accordingly, businesses and their marketing teams are increasingly being reorganised into multi-disciplinary units focused on customer segments or journeys.
But this is easier said than done. It’s one thing to organise a group of marketers into cross-functional teams. It’s another thing entirely to get those teams working well. This is particularly the case when team members are not used to working in cross-disciplinary units, which is often the case in marketing. And it often requires a change in mindset, leadership skills and philosophy.
In fact, according to research published in Harvard Business Review, only one in four cross-functional teams functions well, on average. So how can you ensure cross-functional teams will succeed in your marketing team?
1. Clear objectives
A clear vision and an agreed understanding of what success looks like, as well as how to measure it, are essential if your cross-functional teams are to flourish. This means marketing leaders must effectively communicate their overarching strategic objectives and goals to their teams, as well as how they correspond to those of the broader organisation — and then they must let them get on with figuring out the best way to deliver against those goals. That enables teams to self-direct and prioritise work more easily, with less red tape.
It may sound obvious, but co-locating team members in order to promote collaboration, knowledge-sharing and ownership of a common objective between team members is a key contributor to success in cross-functional teams. Failing that, an emphasis on tools that support real-time collaboration is critical.
“Sitting near each other is highly beneficial,” says Craig Lauchlan, an agile transformation specialist with long experience in implementing cross-functional teams — including within marketing.
“The majority of us are really in the game of knowledge management,” Lauchlan says. “We need to shift information as quickly and as efficiently as we can. Cross-functional teams are very efficient at doing this, especially when they work in close proximity with each other. They focus on action and output and getting things done (rather than getting things done perfectly).”
3. A bias toward action
Traditional marketing models start with a strategy and a long-range plan, before moving to execution, launch and measurement.
Agile marketing teams, which tend to operate in cross-functional units, tend to develop a roadmap featuring key, output-focused objectives, and then take a test-and-learn-based path to delivering them.
There may be more unknowns along the way, but the focus is on getting things done, testing them with the customer and doubling-down on the things that work best.
“The idea is to keep delivering and pivot as you go based on feedback loops,” Lauchlan says. “You need to make sure you document your way through it.”
“You’ve got a budget and a schedule: the question is how much quality can you deliver in that time period?
“You can also visually manage your way there with Kanban boards,” Lauchlan says.
“You’re trying to cut down on wasted meetings and Powerpoint packs that add no value.
“You might need a report (think scorecard) once a week on how the team is progressing but the team should focus on getting as much as possible done in that time period.”
4. An experimental mindset
Traditionally, marketing has operated within a top-down structure, with all crucial decisions referred up to the chief marketing officer. Cross-functional teams require a different approach, according to Lauchlan.
“There’s a leadership mindset that you need to come around to – that of the servant-leader – which means you give up command and control, and you’re open-minded,” he says.
“The job of the servant-leader is removing blockers and creating flow.
“You need to be really action-orientated, walk the floor, set a direction and get out of the way of your teams,” he says.
“In that context, leaders must ensure a team is solving the right problem and has the data that supports the benefits it’s going after.”
The big difference in cross-functional teams running agile processes is that they routinely test concepts with the customer.
“You’ve got to have an experimental mindset,” Lauchlan says. “A number of things are not going to work, and maybe some employees won’t respond, but teams need to learn fast and share fast.
“We don’t know what the customer really wants anyway – so test it with them and get their feedback. Then you run a series of iterations and build it out over a period of time. It’s about a much bigger upside.”
5. Cross-functional leadership
Cross-functional teams that by definition bring together the skill sets from a range of different disciplines are designed to be much more autonomous, and therefore fast-moving, than siloed organisational structures. But that doesn’t mean they don’t require the right leadership support.
According to HBR, there is a “strong correlation between… successful projects and their oversight by a high-level team that is itself cross-functional”.
In enterprise marketing teams, that might mean that while cross-functional teams are relatively autonomous, the marketing lead team — incorporating all the key functional skill sets — still has oversight over teams.
Certainly it should also mean that the leadership of particular disciplines remains in place to ensure those skills are fostered and enhanced in the organisation.
It’s a mistake to assume teams can suddenly transform themselves into high-performing cross-functional teams without the right training, tools and support. The same is true of teams that adopt agile marketing processes.
“You will need a capability uplift plan that will include coaching, training, support structures and behavioural reinforcement,” Lauchlan says. “Identify the key capabilities you are going to require, which may include Agile, Design Thinking and Lean, and build a plan to water and feed these capabilities.
“Critical to success will also be the leadership behaviours that demonstrate a commitment to new ways of working.”
Follow these six tips and you’ll be well on your way to ensuring a successful switch to cross-functional structures in your marketing team.
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