The Starting Point of Cross Functional Team Conflict

The cross functional team has representatives from different functions. The representative of a particular function on the team is meant to work on a project with people from other functions and they are expected to blend in their collective expertise to come up with well thought out solutions, ideas and decisions. This project team is usually referred to as a task force and is brought together in the development stages of a particular project. The cross functional team has to work within a larger organisation framework and see a project through to the final implementation stage.

Quite often such teams run into problems and are unable to work to their full potential because of inherent relationship issues. The lack of co-operation soon becomes apparent when the team members work at cross purposes. Experts feel that these problems take root long before the team is actually formed.

Separate departments are meant to bring greater specialization and expertise into the business and as a result offer better products and services to the consumer. The management of a firm hopes to improve performance, but at the same time get each department or function to work seamlessly with the other as one unit so that the overall business objectives of the firm are met in an efficient and professional manner.

In reality, functions or departments gradually become so full of themselves that they become a mini-organisation within an organisation. They compartmentalize themselves and start operating as distinct groups. This division brings about a feeling of ‘us verses them’. Cross functional conflict and the failure to work well together arises when departmental functions operate in a manner that isolates them from the problems and concerns of their fellow workers.

This division has its repercussions when the company decides to set up cross functional teams. In the words of David Chaudron (a team building academician and consultant with vast experience in this field):

‘Old department rivalries and current personality clashes can create bombshells with the simplest of issues.’

To understand the seeds of old departmental rivalries let’s take a look at the following example:

Example 1

Lisa works as a middle level executive in a marketing communications firm.

Lisa walked to her desk and found a note on a table from Planning that said ‘Inadequate brief, no clarity on what you want’. She had slogged on that brief for three days and spent an hour talking to the team to asked if they needed anything else. That was four days ago. Now when she thought that work was well in progress, she gets this note. Lisa takes it in stride and decides to meet again with her colleagues in Planning to find out what else they need.

Her next stop is the Production Department to pick up some material that’s due on that particular day. Her next setback is when the production guys inform her that the material is not yet ready. She calls her client and informs him about the 48 hour delay. She listens to the client expressing irritation and displeasure over the slow work but thankfully does not get yelled at for the delay.

She then receives a call from the Accounts Department asking about collection of money that’s due from the client. She is told that the money has to be collected within the next two days so that suppliers can be paid. This is after she had made it very clear to them last week that her client can only pay at the end of this week.

The Administration Department was the next to contact her, they wanted her to file her report by this evening outlining her expenses for her recent business trip out of town. Her boss drops in just as she is writing out the form sent by Administration; he wants to see the proposal for the new business pitch scheduled two weeks from now.

Lisa could just as well be a marketing executive in a large consumer products firm, an executive in a publishing firm, a project manager in a software consultancy firm. The specifics of the problems would vary but the overall nature of interdepartmental relationships would remain by and large very similar.

Lisa chose not to confront anybody, nor did she pick up an argument over some of the unjustified demands from her colleagues. If she had, it would have led to friction and turned into a conflict situation. Other people may have reacted badly and picked up an arguments or reacted. Another executive in a similar situation may have taken a more confrontational route in order to get things done on his or her terms. This could have led to the beginning of a relationship-conflict between functions which can occur in many organisations today.

Preventing Interdepartmental Relationship Conflict

To prevent the problems that may arise in cross-functional teams, companies have to improve interdepartmental rapport first. In any company, any organisation and any business, the people employed are meant to operate as one combined team with the focus firmly rooted on the well being of the organisation as a whole

However, departments and the people who operate these departments start treating their divisions as separate functions. They ‘rule’, and the others who interact with them have to toe the line if they want any work done at all. A form of ‘territorial staking’ often takes root leading to conflicts. This confrontational approach finds its way into cross-functional project teams as well. People then start working at cross purposes rather than towards a common goal.

By sending out the right message the top management in an organisation can prevent this from happening. This message can let people know the importance of working as a team and seeing the bigger picture in terms of company success and growth. An environment of co-operation and mutual assistance on tasks, projects, issues or problems will occur. This is because the end goal is to do your best for your organisation while honing your professional skills in your chosen area of specialisation. The cross-functional team concept has a better chance of working well within such a set up.

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