As a business grows, the organisation structure likely becomes more rigid and what was previously a small, fluid team is carved out into more structured departments: finance, operations, software, marketing, sales, and design, for example.

Departments vs Permanent Cross-functional Teams

The traditional department structure makes sense to many growing companies. In departments, talent is grouped, and that allows members to work closely together. It fosters mentoring opportunities and can be a way of showing clear career progression opportunities if you have roles that range in seniority in a single department. Staff are still able to work closely with other departments as needed, but their time is predominantly spent around those in a similar role, in the same department.

Other businesses, particularly large and technical organisations, opt against this structure and build permanent cross-functional teams. This structure aims to pull together different roles into small, agile teams that can then operate more autonomously based on the range of specialisms in their group. For example, grouping one or a small number of software developers and designers, along with a product manager, to oversee the development of a new feature for an existing, expansive platform. There are arguably more opportunities to learn while doing this approach and it encourages a deeper understanding of the other roles involved in creating tech.

Project-driven Cross-functional Teams

Where cross-functional teams come into their own, particularly for small businesses, is when they are created for a single project. In this case, the members of the team involved temporarily step away from their core department to focus all or the majority of their time on a project (it can be likened to secondment).

The team structure for this is dependent on your project but can encompass roles from across the entire business. An example:

Your business aims to migrate from your existing accounting and invoicing system to another that offers more substantial features, such as comprehensive cash flow modeling, to support your growth. You have historical customer and payment data that needs to now exist in the new system. There is no automatic tool to move this data for you and the process of moving it manually would take a substantial amount of time and has a high risk of human error when rekeying data.

In this instance, your team is likely to require expertise across at least technology development and accounting, with the potential requirement for a designer and somebody to serve as project manager. Strictly speaking, as soon as two different roles are brought together, you have a cross-functional team.

Setting Course for Cross-functional Teams

You’ve created a team based on the requirements of your project, the next step is to ensure that everyone understands their role and their focus for the project. Using the hypothetical project above, that might look like:

Project Manager
  • create an outline scope of requirements, explaining the purpose of the project, the value it will bring to the business, how the success of the project can be measured, and ultimately setting a project timeline with a target completion data and a list of associated costs (if any),
  • set milestones for the project, such as being able to retrieve data from the current system and display it, then moving on to importing data into the new system,
  • collate and manage information as it’s received from stakeholders and communicate any questions from the project team to the relevant parties,
  • coordinate regular structured meetings between project team members and any external stakeholders (such as the Head of Finance or CFO).
  • compile a list of all data points and information that exists with the current system and needs to be migrated to the new system,
  • work with the project manager and developers to support in mapping any data that needs to be migrated to its corresponding new label. What is labeled as an “Invoice Reference” may be referred to as an “Invoice Title” in the new system,
  • support the wider team in understanding any finance-based terminology that they may encounter throughout the project,
  • carry out extensive testing as the migration takes place to ensure data is migrated correctly.
  • work with all involved team members to create a buildable project scope based on the requirements,
  • develop the tool to migrate data between the current and future finance system in stages, first by being able to extract data and plot it to the correct new labels for manual review by Accounting, then automating the process of importing this data into the new software,
  • Implement feedback based on the manual testing by Accounting.
  • support the project manager in writing a product scope, ensuring that from the information provided, it is clear where design is needed and what the design must provide,
  • reading from the product scope, create a wireframe of a simple UI that shows the data retrieved from the current system plotted against any new labels, as per milestone one of the project.

As can be seen, each team member has a unique role in the project, and the project itself would not be achievable in full without the involvement of all members of the team.

Dependent on the size of your business and scope and scale of your project, you’ll likely introduce additional department representatives with varying responsibilities into your cross-functional team, such as dedicated software testing and marketing expertise.

Collectively, all team members contribute to the project scope. This ensures that everyone in the cross-functional team understands the project, its aims, and the core purpose. They have also contributed to the process the team will take in delivering the final product, ensuring that everyone is on the same page going forward as to how the project is approached.