Why Cross Functional Teams Fail and How to Ensure Yours Does Not

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Why Cross Functional Teams Fail and How to Ensure Yours Does Not

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There are several benefits to having cross-functional teams within an organization. This includes increased efficiency, faster decision-making, and more opportunities to share resources. However, there are also numerous challenges facing cross-functional teams – whether they share a co-located space or use a virtual environment to collaborate, etc.

These challenges often fall into one of two categories:

  1. Structural Challenges: These challenges occur when there is a lack of alignment about goals and/or roles of individual functions within a team are not clear. Such challenges can cause a lack of cooperation or create confusion regarding who has decision authority.
  2. Skill Limitations: These can come in many forms, but one of the most common (and important) is the lack of strong communication and influence skills. Being able to gain the support of people over whom you have no direct authority is vital for finding solutions that benefit customers, employees, and the organization.

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How much do these issues affect cross-functional teams? According to a study cited in the Harvard Business Review, “nearly 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional.” The article reports that teams “fail on at least three of five criteria: (1) meeting a planned budget, (2) staying on schedule, (3) adhering to specifications, (4) meeting customer expectations, and/or (5) maintaining alignment with the company’s corporate goals.” These challenges pose a particularly significant problem because cross-functional teams exist in organizations of all sizes and in all industries. It’s not just a “big company” problem.

In short, there’s a three out of four chance that a cross-functional team will fail to meet expectations because of structural challenges and/or skill limitations within the team. So, how can Human Resources professionals prevent the cross-functional teams in their organizations from failing like so many others?

One strategy is to use team assessments, track key performance indicators (KPIs), employ work sessions and skill development workshops, and evaluate team performance over time.

Use Team Assessments to Identify Strengths and Areas for Improvement

A basic step in any plan to improve the performance of any team is to first assess the current performance of that team. However, many organizations lack the proper framework to accurately identify the strengths and weaknesses of multi-functional teams.

One example of an effective framework for identifying team strengths and areas for improvement for a cross-functional team is the GRID Survey. OnPoint’s GRID Survey covers the best practices revealed from our own research on why some organizations are able to effectively execute and consistently achieve business objectives.

The survey is designed to assess the extent to which individuals on a cross-functional team agree that the fundamentals necessary for success are in place by gathering feedback on:

  • Shared goals
  • Decision authority
  • Interpersonal relationships/trust
  • Decision-making and problem-solving processes


By collecting the perspective of each member of the team, the survey helps establish a benchmark, builds a shared view among the team of its current state, and helps to establish alignment regarding the actions necessary to address problems. Administering the team assessment again in six to nine months and comparing the results to the benchmark allows the team to determine if progress is being made on any of their structural challenges.

Identify Key Performance Indicators

Key performance indicators (KPIs) are concrete targets that are used to provide direction and evaluate the performance of a cross-functional team. They can also be used to motivate the team and help them determine how much progress has been made toward dealing with the structural challenges and skill limitations that may impede the team’s performance.

In addition, the extent to which there is improvement in a team’s KPIs after an organizational development initiative or training program can help evaluate the effectiveness of that intervention.

Facilitate Work Sessions

After assessing the extent to which the critical structural elements and skills are in place, the team’s leader (or an HR pro, if an impartial resource is needed) can then facilitate work sessions to address structural issues on the team that may be holding it back, particularly the misalignment of goals/KPIs and roles among team members.

In the work session, and using the results of the team assessment, the team discusses and agrees on the issues they face, such as transparency of communication, shared goals, and decision authority. Any other issues discovered during the GRID Survey could also be addressed here.

In the case of clarifying decision authority, some teams may find the RACI Matrix to be a useful tool. RACI is an acronym standing for:

  • Responsible: Who will be executing this task and be held responsible for making sure it is carried out successfully?
  • Accountable: Who has decision authority and will accept the blame if things go awry? This person (or group) has the ultimate choice of whether or not an action or recommendation will move forward.
  • Consulted: Who can provide the necessary information and act as the key stakeholder whose support will be needed for implementation?
  • Informed: Whose work will be impacted by this decision and needs to be updated on its progress?


The RACI Model helps teams sort out who needs to be involved in decisions and to what extent – it defines when cooperation is required and what it looks like.

Skill Development Workshops

These workshops focus on specific skill deficiencies among the team, such as conflict management, trust building, and communication skills.

These development workshops can also be an opportunity for team members to get to know one another and build relationships, helping to foster better communication and cooperation among team members.

When conducting these sessions, it’s more effective to use real-world issues that the team faces as application exercises rather than generic case studies or role-play sessions. The use of real-world problems helps the team get real work done while driving home the lessons by linking them to things that the team actually deals with.

Evaluating Team Performance

Following the completion of work sessions and skill development workshops, re-administering the GRID Survey to the team allows HR leadership to measure the team’s progress in addressing its structural challenges and skill limitations. The team’s progress can be further verified by monitoring the improvement in the team’s KPIs.

Based on the results of the post-assessment and current KPIs, the team can both celebrate and promote its successes and identify areas for further improvement. This information can then be used to determine what future work sessions and skills development workshops would be most helpful.

Following these steps can help the cross-functional teams in your organization avoid the pitfalls and challenges that cause so many other teams to fail. By using the right tools and approach, you can ensure that the issues with the greatest impact on a cross-functional team’s performance have been identified, and that you’re implementing development initiatives that will have the best return on that investment of time and money.

Rick Lepsinger
Rick Lepsinger

Rick Lepsinger is President of OnPoint Consulting. His career has focused on helping organizations and leaders identify and develop leaders, work better virtually, enhance cross-functional team performance, and get from strategy to execution faster. He conducts numerous seminars and workshops on succession management, leading from a distance, leading cross-functional teams, and enhancing execution. Rick has written numerous articles and is the author or co-author of several books.

Connect with Rick on LinkedIn.

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