How to make cross-organisational teams work for people

4 minute read
Although they are a growing trend, cross-organisational teams can have some costly side-effects for people assigned to these temporary projects, says Simon Thule Viggers, chief people & culture officer and Saeedeh Kristensen, PhD student at Milestone Systems

Cross-organisational team graphic

At Milestone Systems we have been working with cross-organisational teams as a way to stimulate innovation for several years. We have seen some great successes, but there have also been some  complications and issues that we were not expecting. In this article, we share some of the valuable lessons from our experience with  managing cross-organisational teams.

Keep it small

Cross-organisational teams play a crucial role in helping organisations swiftly adapt to changes, explore new opportunities and offer internal career growth. However, they can often face challenges. A 2015 survey by Harvard Business Review found that 75% of cross-organisational teams are dysfunctional.

This may be because they are too big. Most cross-organisational teams are groups of people with different areas of expertise working towards a common goal. Such teams can include people from all levels of the organisation and there is often a lack of clarity regarding the team’s hierarchy.

Maintain long-term relationships with regular teams

At Milestone we have moved away from organizing teams purely based on their functions to a project-based approach. Temporary teams co-exist within the company. This allows people to maintain long-term relationships with their regular teams to ensure continuity with individual performance, salary and career development. It is important for people to continue reporting to their regular managers even when they are fully dedicated to a project that has its own designated project lead.

Joining a cross-organisational team can be fraught with issues for the individuals involved. These concerns can rub off on members of their regular teams, even when everyone knows that it is a temporary situation. One major challenge is the confusion surrounding a person’s role within the temporary team and how it will affect their career. Questions arise, like who will take on their regular responsibilities while they are away and whether their regular job will still be there when they return.

Strengthen people skills

People skills are critical to the success of cross-organisational teams. They help people express ideas, receive feedback and reach agreement. In temporary settings people must engage with others quickly and in a constructive manner. People skills also help the team to share their knowledge with the wider organisation.

Drive team diversity, deliberately select people who think differently

Avoid allocating the same people to cross-organisational teams. Today's business problems are complex, and things change quickly. Teams of people with similar backgrounds and education are likely to have similar ideas and tend to get stuck in the same place. In contrast, diverse teams are more likely to produce fresh ideas.

Establish a single growth culture

Cross-organisational teams often possess a culture of autonomy, flexibility and horizontal leadership. This contrasts with the typical hierarchical culture found in companies that emphasizes control and discipline. Having two opposing cultures can lead to friction between the teams and the company.

Reinforce psychological safety and accountability

We found that the secret to making cross-organisational teams work for people is reinforcing psychological safety and accountability. In a psychologically safe environment individuals feel comfortable expressing their opinions without fear of retribution. To avoid an atmosphere of tension, characterised by an “us versus them” mentality, leaders should build a work environment which minimizes interpersonal fear. Leaders must destigmatize failure and instead foster a learning organisation that considers intelligent failures as valuable opportunities for growth. However, it is important to note that high psychological safety may not be effective if it leads to consensus decision-making and lack of ownership.

To make cross-organisational teams successful leaders must avoid the trap of one-size-fits-all thinking. It is essential for leaders to adapt their styles to cater to the diverse needs of individuals within the cross-organisational teams. This calls for a humble approach. Actively listen to different ideas and viewpoints and ensure that everyone in the team feels valued and heard.

While divergent thinking is important, it is necessary to recognize when there are enough ideas on the table so the group can converge on a decision. Once a decision is made leaders must be confident to enroll the team and the company behind it.

We hope the key learnings will help you avoid some of the challenges and organisational pitfalls associated with cross-organisational teams. With the right approach cross-organisational teams can be a powerful tool for companies to navigate the complexities of today's business environment.

Key Lessons:

  • Cross-functional teams work best as small groups of people in which everyone agrees to a pre-determined endpoint after which the team’s work will stop.
  • Provide flexible employee journeys that are tailored to people’s individual development plans to help overcome these challenges.
  • We learned that cross-organisational teams are not for everyone. They work best for people who are socially astute, good at recognising and interpreting cues and respond diplomatically. This helps people to build relationships quickly and cope with the stress and uncertainty that can come with temporary projects. To help people:
  • Create opportunities for the team to get to know each other through informal social events.
  • Pay special attention to the wellbeing and engagement of everyone on the team.
  • Shield them from the uncertainties inherent with being part of a temporary, project-based group. Providing clarity and support can help alleviate stress.
  • Deliberately select people with varied backgrounds who think differently from each other. A diverse team’s unique frames of reference allow them to outperform homogenous groups. This not only fosters a more inclusive environment but also ensures that career development opportunities within the company are distributed fairly. More people should have the chance to participate in cross-organisational projects and grow professionally.
  • Instead of two different cultures each with their own focus, establish a single growth culture that is built on experimentation, learning and continuous feedback.
  • To combine psychological safety and accountability, leaders need to establish transparent boundaries and clearly communicate expectations. This can be achieved through building trust, open communication and providing constructive feedback.

Simon Thule Viggers is chief people & culture officer at Milestone Systems and Saeedeh Kristensen is undertaking an industrial PhD at Milestone Systems/Aarhus University, Denmark

Saeedeh Kristensen and Simon Viggers from Milestone Systems

Published 6 September 2023
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