Leading Cross Functional Teams When You Lack Authority

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written by Rick Lepsinger

If you’ve ever tried leading cross functional teams of people from multiple departments, you’re already well aware of some of the challenges.

There can be uncertainty over who’s calling the shots when all roles are essentially equal. Confusion about who’s responsible for doing what. A lack of ownership and accountability.

All this can make it difficult to make decisions and keep projects moving. However, as matrix organizations and the cross-functional team approach have become the norm, being able to effectively overcome these challenges is a key characteristic of successful leaders.

Here are five steps you and your leaders can take to be more successful in a cross functional team environment.

1) Establish Shared Goals

Members of cross-functional teams often bring their own agendas to the table. Those priorities are not always aligned, and they might even be at odds with each other, setting the stage for conflict. This often happens between sales and marketing, who are being judged by a different set of metrics.

Before beginning any team project, take time to clarify the primary objectives, how they will be measured and how achieving those objectives will benefit everyone.

If it’s possible, determine how success can be tied to shared incentives.

2) Clarify Roles and Decision Authority

Take time to share job descriptions and communicate primary responsibilities within the team.

Most importantly, clarify who will have decision authority for each major task the team will need to accomplish, who needs to be involved in approvals and who will move the process forward.

3) Build Strong Relationships Based on Trust

Influencing is easier and more effective when you’ve developed strong personal relationships and trust among team members.

Make the effort to get to know everyone on your team on a personal level, even if you’re working together remotely. Make time for quick, casual conversations that aren’t work related.

4) Use the Right Approach

Your success in leading others, especially a team of your peers, largely depends on your ability to influence them. Some influencing tactics are highly effective within a matrix, while others almost never work.

There is no one tactic that works in every situation. For instance, reasoning, the most commonly used tactic among successful leaders, requires a certain level of credibility. If you lack experience in a particular area or are new to the team, using another tactic, such as consulting, is likely to have better results.

5) Hold People Accountable

With no means of managing accountability in a cross functional team, execution quickly falls apart.  Using the ATC model of Action, Timetable and Checkpoints (think Air Traffic Controller) can help ensure everyone is set up for success and able to meet their commitments.

First, define expected outcomes and agree on who will be responsible for carrying them out. Set a clear due date and timeline. You can’t hold people accountable if expectation and timeframes have not been made explicit. Finally, don’t wait until the due date, check in with your team members periodically at key milestones to see where they stand. This is a good opportunity to pinpoint any potential roadblocks, such as a lack of resources necessary to complete the task, and find out what you can do to assist.

Taking the Next Step

Leading a team of your peers comes with some unique challenges, but it can also bring opportunities. You are likely to enjoy greater transparency, more shared resources and the potential for stronger ideas to emerge from a higher degree of collaboration.

OnPoint Consulting has developed a number of solutions to enhance cross functional leadership and teamwork. Something as simple as implementing a series of e-learning programs might be enough to raise awareness about these issues and inspire leaders to be more proactive.

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