Organise people in cross-functional teams to dramatically increase productivity

Minimise Human Latency

Delay Is A Huge Cost

The key to high productivity is “getting the right people in the room”. For a service that means an end-to-end slice of the key people involved in delivering and improving the service that sit next to each other every day. Traditional functional silos destroy productivity because they introduce big delays and buffers between groups, inhibit communication and make functions more important than the whole, putting personal agendas ahead of the business.

The most common problem I see in client organisations is functional specialisation of teams. The bureaucratic, siloed and slow-moving fragmented mess that often results feels a little bit like a war zone.

Who teaches this stuff? It is as if this is the “one true path” or only way to organise mandated by God. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There’s more than one way to organise. Most organisations think only in terms of a functionally-split hierarchy with different divisions and teams that each deal with a small slice of the end-to-end service delivery.

This makes HR happy with its neat boxes and reporting lines. It lends itself neatly to separation of responsibility. Which is exactly what you don’t want – responsibility should be collective if you want to stand any chance of running a successful service.

What can go wrong?

Let’s try first to understand the problems that this organisational approach causes. We’ll explore the issues and then look at what might be done about them.


Work & Knowledge Fragmented
We only get to see our part in the process and have little idea what other groups do

Communication & Collaboration Inhibited
We spend a lot time in meetings to try and understand what others are doing, their progress and when we’ll get what we need. There are a lot of nasty surprises!

Adds Huge Delays
It is common for us to wait weeks for an input we need to complete our work. Deliverables from other groups are often late and not what we really need

Local Functions Become King
There’s a lot of empire building and politics between different groups. Senior managers are vying for power and control

Loss Of Control
We’re just unable to make service delivery join up. Every initiative from the top gets distorted, delayed, fragmented and lost as it cascades down


Teams and departments are separated into “functions” where people who do the same kinds of work sit together with their own manager. The work of each function is tracked and measured locally with handoffs to other groups.

Functional specialisation of teams is founded in a damaging analogy with factory production work that has no place in modern service delivery.

The fragmentation that results means that no-one has a good understanding of the whole service and can only focus on their own narrow steps in the process.

This leads directly to local optimisation at the expense of the whole. Delivery of the function, not the whole service, becomes the primary obsession. Barriers are erected to other groups whose demands distract from the function, creating delays, waste and re-work. A natural outcome is “turf” that can be fought over.

Left to fester this dysfunction becomes so strong that improvement is impossible.

What can be done?

It doesn’t have to be like this. It is perfectly possible to follow an alternative pattern in your organisation that leads to a far better outcome. Let’s look together at what you could do instead and the positive consequences that will follow.

First we’ll examine what the alternative, Cross-Functional Teams, looks like:


Work & Knowledge United
Everyone has a clear view of everything that affects customer experience and what we can do to improve it

Communication & Collaboration Maximised
Because we’re all sat together we’re able to instantly break-out into a workshop session without arranging a meeting, booking a room or going anyway. We’re working through problems far more quickly

Minimises Delays
Because we have so few dependencies planning and prioritising is far simpler. We don’t have to wait on anyone else to get on and deliver service improvements

Promotes Healthy Competition
Different team compete with each other to deliver the best service. The difference is that this competition doesn’t come at customers’ expense because each team is delivering an end-to-end service

Excellence Can Be Shared
Because teams are cross-functional, there’s a huge amount of good practice that we can learn from each other. Much of our work is composed of similar activities to other teams

Quality Increased
We’re much more directly connected to our customers than we were in the past. That means that we can respond far more quickly and fix issues as soon as we can because we’re painfully close to their consequences


People are organised into a series of small cross-functional teams composed of a selection of roles needed to deliver and develop each service. Work is tracked against end-to-end service delivery with a minimum of internal handoffs.

The key activity of any business is delivering value to customers. The best way to achieve this is to group people in cross-functional teams that directly line up to the services delivered to customers – involving all end-to-end aspects of service delivery and development.

This brings everyone far closer to customers, permeates a broad understanding of customer’s needs and acts to increase and grow knowledge of each service. Sitting together the people who need to work together to deliver each service also maximises communication and turns each team area into a natural collaboration space.

All of this eliminates handoffs, dependencies, delays, improves quality and allows teams to both compete and share good practice without the risk of destructive turf wars.

How to get started

So how would you go about following this pattern in your organisation?

Run a thought experiment with a single service that focuses on steps (2) and (3) and determines what a cross-functional team would look like and who could be involved. Share and discuss your findings.

The great news is that cross-functional teams are easy to pilot and try out with low costs and risks. You just need to be willing to work in a different way. People often have a million questions and objections – the best way to deal with these is just to start, try it out and have the questions answered through trialling a new way of working.

If you are not sure about all of this yet then why not try out the Toe Dipping option as a first step?


1. Baseline Current Performance
Before initiating changes, make sure you have a thorough baseline of how well the existing service is performing. Capture data in a form that will make it easy to compare past performance against improvements.

2. Identify Key End-to-End Roles

Select the key people from across teams that need to work together

Take a service and run a workshop as a thought experiment to identify the key roles needed for a small team that focuses on end-to-end service delivery and development. Map this out visually and annotate how the roles relate.

3. Identify People To Pilot Changes
Using your knowledge of specific individuals, hand pick the right people from each department to pilot changes. Make sure your choices are open to change and willing to work without all the usual procedural comforts.

4. Run A Pilot
Form a cross-functional team and run it as a pilot on a real service, to deliver and further development that service. Run it for a period of weeks to months, whatever you need to understand the differences and show benefits.

5. Review Impact
Re-baseline the service following the pilot and write up and distribute the results throughout the organisation.

6. Roll Out More Widely
Plan and deliver a staggered and ramped-up rollout across the organisation.


Why not set a deliberate corporate goal to have 80% of your staff sitting in cross-functional teams? That will force everyone to step back, consider end-to-end service delivery and come up with practical suggestions and pilots for a new way of working.

Closing thoughts

I often hear the objection: “But we have to have some functionally-specialised teams just to have basic cost-saving efficiencies…”.

That’s makes sense in theory but in practice it is true far less often than people think.

Functionally-specialised teams can work only when they are out of the main flow of the work, the service they provide to other teams is highly transactional, low variability (i.e. there’s a few simple fixed types of requests and responses) and extremely fast turnaround (no SLAs please).

You can do that for putting desktops on people’s desks but even in that scenario it is questionable. To properly support the IT needs of a collocated group requires understanding what they do and how their needs differ from other groups – which pretty quickly leads you to assigning them a permanent IT bod who sits with that team (part-time or full-time as necessary). In other words, make them part of the cross-functional team!

Posted in Collaboration, Coordination.

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