Should you form cross-functional agile teams?

Forming cross-functional agile teams

Should you form cross-functional agile teams?

In large, conventional organizations, multiple departments manage specific functions. Marketing, finance, HR and sales teams work in silos, often focused on their own outcomes rather than being primarily driven by the customer and the market.

Yet even before the pandemic hit, organizations recognized the need to manage change and make decisions quicker than ever before to keep up with competitors. Along came covid, and those needs vastly intensified. 

To thrive in an uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, many organizations are moving away from silos and racing towards enterprise agility, forming networks of empowered cross-functional agile teams.

But the change from siloed departments to agile teams means change, and change can be difficult.

In this article we weigh up the pros and cons of each operating model.

Key points

  • Communication, collaboration, and employee engagement are often better in cross-functional teams.
  • By iteratively testing solutions quickly, cross-functional teams can boost productivity, cut costs, and deliver better results.
  • There may be bumps along the road before a newly formed cross-functional team matures and reaches its potential, but you can take steps to help them succeed.

"The two most urgent reasons for adopting Agile are the speed and flexibility required by working environments that continue to be bother unpredictable and volatile." State of Agile Report

What are cross-functional agile teams?

Cross-functional agile teams (sometimes known as cross-functional scrum teams) are a key element in any organization’s agile development. 

The team brings together people from across the business with different expertise and skillsets. Together, the team works toward a common goal.

Usually made up of 5 to 11 people, the team defines, builds, tests and delivers projects in sprints or iterations.

"The ability for the team to support each other, collaborate with each other and align to the goal are wonderful ways to measure agile."
William Rojas, Adaptavist

What are the benefits of cross-functional agile teams?

There are many benefits of having cross-functional agile teams in your organization. Here’s our top five.

1. Cross-functional teams communicate and collaborate better

Siloed teams can spend many hours a week in unproductive meetings as they negotiate resources and manage conflicting priorities. On the other hand, Agile teams align on goals and objectives from the beginning of each project. This helps make their subsequent meetings brief, productive and transparent. Each person is accountable and empowered to share progress and solve problems. As a result, agile teams are often more engaged and passionate about their work.

2. Cross-functional teams are responsive

In silos, each team is responsible for an aspect of a project with limited visibility into what other teams are doing. This can lead to blockers or conflicting priorities, creating rework and delays. They may also find they lack specific skills as the project goes on, leaving teams rushing to fill the gaps and causing further delays. Moving to agile teams means having the necessary skills and resources available, as well as identifying conflicting priorities and blockers early. This helps agile teams rapidly iterate, continually improve, and deliver results.

3. Cross-functional teams are innovative

In siloed organizations, employees can get caught up in their departmental group think. The limited exposure to other teams makes employees less likely to question established practises or suggest improvements. In cross-functional agile teams, perspectives from people across multiple teams are shared from the outset. Because people from different skills approach problems in different ways, this can lead to great ideas and business innovation.

4. Cross-functional teams help the business adapt to change

With their iterative approach and frequent communication, cross-functional agile teams can problem solve and change directions fast. They don’t face the renegotiation, reprioritization, and delays that can hold siloed teams back. Instead, businesses with cross-functional teams can better respond to changing market and customer needs.

5. Cross-functional teams consistently focus on the big picture

Cross-functional agile teams understand the ‘why’ behind the work they’re doing, and they come together with a focus on the customer experience. This shared focus dissolves the barriers between the different functions within the team. Deliverables are mapped to high-level business objectives which deliver greater value to the end-user.

What are the downsides of cross-functional agile teams?

If cross-functional teams are done right, there really are no downsides. What organization doesn’t want increased collaboration, innovation, customer focus and faster delivery?

That said, there can be bumps and conflict as people learn to adapt to the agile mindset – and this is where cross-functional teams can fail to deliver. Here are some of the common challenges large organizations face when moving to cross-functional agile teams:

  • Cultural resistance with people reluctant to let go of the old way of doing things.
  • No clear accountability, leaving teams unable to make quick decisions and people clinging to a sense of ownership over their work.
  • Lack of alignment with goals which can lead to misunderstandings, rework, and potential conflict.

With this in mind, it may take a little time and support for a newly formed agile team to find its wings.

"Often the way teams become agile is just by doing it, trying it, and continuing to evolve and committing to that approach. So, if you haven't started - just get started. That's often the biggest struggle."
William Rojas, Adaptavist

The first step is to just get started

Being agile means changing an organization’s processes and people structure, and it can seem like a lot of hard work. But if businesses don’t transform so they can capture the productivity, speed, customer, and employee engagement benefits; they’re at risk of being left behind.

Cross-functional agile teams can be your key adapting fast and getting ahead. There’s no doubt they can deliver outstanding results – if you take the right steps to set them up for success.

For concrete advice on how to drive successful cross-functional agile teams and avoid failure, sign up for our free on-demand webinar - ‘Do’s and Don'ts of Agile Teams with Adaptavist’.

The webinar will take a deep dive into the SAFe agile team together with our partner and SAFe expert Adaptavist.

Keen to scale agile and form successful cross-functional teams?
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