Cross-functional Participation: When Just Showing Up Isn't Enough

How many times do you hear about, read about or experience the need for a cross-functional team to address a corporate challenge, or more specifically, a purchasing project or process? Have you ever participated on such a team? How did it go? Have you ever been on a cross-functional team where results were less than anticipated? Do team members show up but are not really there? While Woody Allen may have said that showing up is 80% of success, in my experience, it's a lower percentage on cross-functional teams.

I'm not arguing with the need for firms to "break down the functional silos." But sometimes silo-busting is easier to contemplate in theory than to accomplish in practice. To truly get cross-functional participation and contributions towards procurement-led initiatives, a silo wrecking ball may not be sufficient.

What are some characteristics of high-performing cross-functional teams? The team should have a clear charter and purpose. The support of company leadership is also essential. If the leadership gives lip service, then the team may be doomed. Team members should be chosen not just for their expertise, but also for their ability to be persuasive to decision makers (i.e., to be politically connected) and to get things done. Of course, the team needs to be empowered to take action, which requires engaging and communicating with key stakeholders and not just making decisions within the confines of the team. Forming a team without accomplishing much sends a bad signal to the rest of the organization.

I once worked in quality improvement capacity (Director of TQM, for those of you who remember the total quality management days) for a distribution company leading several cross-functional improvement teams. Interestingly, the team that focused on purchasing and supplier management challenges had difficulties getting any participation from outside the department and decided to go it alone, even though purchasing sat on other cross-functional teams.

I recently read Steve Roger's book, The Supply-Based Advantage (AMACOM, 2009), overall a very insightful book about supplier management. One idea in the book that stuck with me was about the use of cross-functional teams by procurement and supplier management. According to Rogers, deriving value and competitive advantage from suppliers may be doomed without a broad internal mindset that suppliers can bring value. Thus, he prefers the term cross-functional belief instead of cross-functional team or involvement. If the company views suppliers as a necessary evil or a convenient whipping boy, then the chances for collaborating with suppliers strategically and actually deriving value are low. Even when the leadership supports purchasing initiatives, it is often much easier for them to fall back on focusing primarily on immediate financial results, which is where their own pressures typically originate.

Sherry Gordon

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