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Challenges of Leading Cross-Functional Teams & How to Address Them

How to Lead a Cross Functional Team

Being a delivery lead (sometimes referred to elsewhere as a project manager) can often feel like being the captain of a ship. You’re navigating a ‘sea’ of tasks, deadlines, and multiple team dynamics.

In this article, we’ll dive into the complexities and challenges of leading a cross-functional project and how to overcome them with skill and confidence. Learn how to keep your ‘ship’ steady through conflicting priorities and make the most of our limited time each day.

What is a cross-functional team? 

First, let’s define what we mean by a cross-functional team. 

Think of a cross-functional team as any project team with more than one functional area of a company responsible as stakeholders in the project, each having their own set of deliverables and success criteria.

For example, some common functional areas are product, marketing, sales, design, and legal. 

Leadership Within a Cross-Functional Team

Project teams need strong leaders to guide them collectively toward success. Selecting the right delivery lead is crucial and often challenging, but it’s the first step in any project.

The ideal leader possesses specific qualities that set the tone for effective management and overall success; when choosing a delivery lead, look for these essential attributes:

1. Impartiality

Since they’ll be working with different personalities, team dynamics, and sometimes conflicting priorities and goals, delivery leads must always remain focused on the project’s end goal.

The ability to make unbiased decisions that benefit the overall project, not just specific segments, is crucial.

2. Ability to Delegate

Good leaders recognize that time is their most valuable resource. There are only so many hours in a day, so how can leaders approach all the valid, pressing questions and needs of everyone involved in the project?

At Frogslayer, delivery leads establish leaders within specific teams to work more efficiently. Individuals can refer to their team lead if they have questions in particular areas (product, design, legal, etc.)

Here, delivery leads take a servant leadership approach. We identify and lean on our subject matter experts within the team to get tasks done. It’s our job to set SMEs up for success by clearly communicating requirements, empowering them to do their best work, and supporting them in any way we can.

3. Strategic Vision & Attention to Detail

A delivery lead must work at a higher level of vision and understanding than the rest of the team. However, they should still be capable of diving deep into details when necessary.

This balance will help navigate one of the most common issues with cross-functional projects: scheduling.

Ultimately, the delivery lead should be a well-rounded individual who’s respected and trusted by their team. They need to be ‘the glue’ that holds cross-functional teams together. 

Common Challenges and How to Address Them

Referring to our ship analogy, even the most experienced captains will occasionally have to navigate rough waters.

Similarly, even with a seasoned delivery lead, cross-functional teams will still face occasional challenges.

Below are three common challenges these teams face and how delivery leads can confidently approach them. 

Design before Development 

In cross-functional teams incorporating design, going through multiple iterations before securing client approval is common. Delivery leads need to plan for these timelines to avoid delays.

Design tasks often require several adjustments and client-sign off before they’re ready for development. This means while delivery leads aim to keep the development backlog filled 1-2 sprints ahead, they also need to ensure design deliverables are prepared 1-2 sprints before they enter the backlog.  

A practical solution I’ve discovered is empowering the design lead to communicate directly with the client. Scheduling at least one meeting between the design lead and the client during each sprint can significantly streamline the process.

This approach prevents delivery leads from becoming a bottleneck and keeps the entire team aligned and smoothly progressing.  

Data Contracts 

Having a technical plan with a clearly defined data contract is crucial before starting any feature that requires both front-end and back-end work.

A data contract prevents confusion over the expected format of back-end responses or the type of payload the front end should send.  

It’s essential to tackle these issues at the outset to avoid delays or the need for rework due to mismatched implementations. Leads should ensure a workflow for tasks, with a specific stage dedicated to reviewing and agreeing on the technical approach and data contract.

This involves the development team discussing whether a task requires a data contract and, if so, coordinating all parties to agree on and establish it before any work begins.  

Roles & Responsibilities 

Finally, within cross-functional teams come…well, multiple teams! Often, especially at the beginning of a project, specific issues arise.

Stepping on toes, miscommunication, missed work, delays, and lack of progress all have one thing in common: They originate from a lack of structure and set roles and responsibilities.

I’ve found the best way to approach this is by having a specific type of workshop early in the life of the project I refer to as, ‘How do you work?’ 

In these workshops, we identify each team member’s work style and expectations to lay the groundwork. Once expectations are set and the team members are familiar with one another’s work styles, the focus turns to setting roles and responsibilities within the team.  

A typical project structure involves a delivery lead overseeing the project and relying on team leads to ensure everyone has the necessary resources and knowledge to meet set deadlines and deliverables.

Final Thoughts 

While this guide doesn’t cover every potential challenge faced by cross-functional teams, it does highlight some prevalent issues that can create ‘rough waters’ for delivery leads.

While there’s always more to learn, these solutions, from ensuring clear data contract coordination to streaming design deliverables and facilitating direct communication, are designed to keep you on track and deliver a successful project.

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