Beginner’s guide to cross-functional teams

Editor’s note: You may remember that recently we announced a partnership with Alliance and the renowned Vlerick Business School for an upcoming interactive masterclass designed specifically for marketing and growth teams working at European tech scale-ups. This article, written by Robin Geers, the founder and CEO of Alliance, and edited by, is part of this partnership. In fact, this is the first piece in a series of stories with the goal of touching upon important topics before the five-week intensive masterclass begins. All credits for the practical insights in this specific post goes to one of the experts from the program: Dean Bakker (director of product at N26).

If you’ve ever worked for a reasonably large organisation, you’re probably familiar with the functional model where people are organised by their role or skill set (e.g. sales, marketing, product, engineering, etc.). It’s the most common structure that provides lots of benefits, such as clear accountability, specialisation, and productivity.

Fast-growing startups, on the other hand, quickly realise that there are limitations to the applicability of the functional model. It turns out that from around 100 employees “silos” start to arise, making collaboration between teams and departments unnecessarily difficult.

With this increasing complexity, comes the slow decision-making, convoluted communication, and inefficient organisational learning. Because at the end of the day, when working in “silos”, you end up with people who are similar to yourself. This limits you to discover new knowledge.

Have you ever wondered:

  • Why are we focusing so much on product feature X, and not Y?
  • Why are we doing marketing campaigns in the UK, and not in Germany?

Perhaps having closer relationships with product, sales, marketing, and customer service teams could help you to answer these questions. According to Dean Bakker, director of product at N26 and one of the experts in Alliance’s upcoming masterclass, that is exactly why these are the advantages of cross-functional teams.

Functional versus cross-functional teams

In response to global markets becoming more competitive, and the path to success for companies getting more varied, more and more organisations are starting to favour teamwork, innovation, and communication over functional speciality.

Let’s be honest here, setting up and leading cross-functional teams the right way is no walk in the park. Looking at other organisations and cherry-picking a single technique to implement within your organisation ignores the fact that the context, values and life-stage of your organisation are likely to be different to someone else’s.

For the organisations that have demonstrated success with cross-functional teams, it’s highly likely that they have a supporting set of values and processes that truly empower the teams to help make this organisational model thrive. For example:

  • Who decides what each team can or should build? Is it the founder or the team?
  • What information drives decision making? Budget, time-to-market, utilisation, predictability or commercial success?
  • How should we communicate with each other and update on our progress?

This list goes on and on, and depending on your answer, cross-functional teams may either be a great fit… or they may be a huge distraction and a limiting factor to your efficiency in achieving your desired goals.

So before you decide to work with cross-functional teams, look inwardly and ask yourself: what am I trying to achieve?

Are you looking to further penetrate the market that you currently exist within, or are you looking to develop new products? Is it important that leadership maintains control of decision-making, or would you benefit from pushing it to the teams that are closer to your customers?

Armed with a clear understanding of your goals and a deep self-reflection of your culture and value system, you will have a huge advantage in answering the question of how to organise yourself for success.

Maybe your answer is to have truly empowered cross-functional teams optimised for time-to-value and innovation, or maybe it’s not and you want to optimise for speed, predictability and control.

Either way, there’s one thing that’s for certain when you decide how to organise and attempt to scale your organisation from 1 team to 100 teams: the answer to the questions and the associated problems will be amplified one way or another, they are never diminished.

The key to success for leading cross-functional teams is getting the balance right between alignment and autonomy. Stay tuned for a more hands-on, step-by-step practical guide on cross-functional team leadership to be published on soon.

Featured image credit: Providence Doucet on Unsplash

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