Using Cross-Functional Teams to Drive Innovation and Improvement

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by Daniel Lock

What is process innovation when it comes to cross-functional teams?

More and more often, companies are turning to task forces and focus groups that draw from a myriad of resources to get the job done. The theory here is that even if you’re trying to, say, build a better bicycle, the engineers you have on staff aren’t the only experts on the subject.

What about the customers? The salespeople? It’s easy to miss a potentially groundbreaking idea when you limit your brainpower to a single group of people. Engineers are incredibly intelligent people, but they might not understand a viewpoint that can only be seen from a different position.

The more diverse, the better

Shimano develops bicycles for both professionals and the average user. When they wanted to come up with a bigger and better design, the company knew better than to limit their thinking to one department, or to even limit their resource base to their employees. Instead, they gathered together research and development staff, engineers, personnel from their Japanese factories, employees, and consumers of every type, from athletes to the so-called “weekend warriors.”

This collaboration of individuals was able to offer the designers a type of feedback that they couldn’t see in a simulation and that a computer would have been unable to provide. The result? Novel derailleur designs for the new XT/XTR Saint and Shadow bikes that were to be released.

Eliminate barriers

When it comes to getting the most out of diverse teams, Sealy took their business process model to a new level when they were faced with the task of unveiling a new mattress to increase sales. In this instance, the company did a few things right. First, they emphasized the diversity of their team. They took people from multiple departments, pulled them away from their silos, and pushed them together in a group that was able to execute ideas efficiently.

Which leads to the second feature they executed well. Sealy threw out the traditional hierarchy that is usually present in these types of groups so that people didn’t have to go through the typical chain of command to accomplish work. This streamlined the process and allowed a free flow of ideas and innovative new concepts. Their process for innovation also involved getting rid of typical limits, such as keeping costs low or avoiding prototyping. Without these often confining boundaries, the group was free to explore all options and access unlimited avenues for design. At the end of the process, the product they churned out broke all previous sales records.

Look outside too

In 1998, Bigelow Aerospace started a program designed to develop inflatable modules, with the goal of innovating products that would orbit the Earth. This business went further than simply bringing together employees within their own company. If you’re going to think about outer space, you’ve got to think big, and that’s exactly what they did. In this example, the process of innovation involved reaching out to hard hitters like the NASA Johnson Space Center and Lockheed Martin, utilizing over 20 subcontractors, and drawing from U.S. and European technologies.

With all of these powers working together and drawing from such a vast array of resources, they were able to move five years ahead of schedule. One of the huge benefits was the licensing agreements they were able to obtain from their partnership with NASA, including a license for radiation shielding technology. Bigelow reaped the rewards for their innovation process management. They were able to move their scope from Earth and develop modules that could potentially orbit the moon or even Mars.

Building a Cross-Functional Team

When looking to design a task-force with the kind of clout and results described above, a few key elements can contribute to success. Diversity is number one. These process innovation examples demonstrate that thinking big pays off big. Consider divisions even if at first glance they would be well outside the scope or expertise of the project. Maybe even consider going beyond your own employees and seeking out the knowledge of other companies or your own customers. Furthermore, avoid limiting innovation wherever possible.

It might seem like a no-brainer, but it also seems like a no brainer to keep costs down, to have a strong system of management, and to avoid wasting materials. While all of these ideas are smart for business, they can be dumb for innovation

Your ability to get anything done is directly related to the quality of your relationships with your colleagues, partners and other stakeholders. Wherever I see slow progress and focus on firefighting over innovation and improvement, a failure to deliver a project or an unresolved problem, I also tend to observe poor quality relationships between the different players. Even if you have hierarchical superiority and can effectively tell someone to do something, the solution will be sub-par if the relationship isn’t also strong.

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Daniel Lock helps organisations unlock value and productivity through process improvement, project change management. Find out more about him at