5 Practices to Avoid Knowledge Differences in Cross-functional Teams - Ideas for Leaders
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5 Practices to Avoid Knowledge Differences in Cross-functional Teams

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Five practices for cross-functional teams, using a visual or conceptual illustration as a starting point for dialogue and solution-seeking, help team members share knowledge without emphasizing their differences.


Teamwork is never easy, and cross-functional teamwork is especially challenging given the starkly different experiences, knowledge and perspectives that team members bring to the team. To span the divisions, participants on cross-functional teams are often asked to acquire identify and confront the differences among them. 

The authors of an-depth research study argue against this time- and effort-consuming ‘deep knowledge’ approach. Through their research on three successful cross-functional teams in different companies, they found a common set of practices that conquered the challenge of integrating diverse knowledge in a timely manner.

First, the teams began their collaboration with each member expressing, in one word or a handful of words, their thoughts or observations on the topic. These thoughts —called ‘voicing fragments’ by the researchers—were not judged, refuted, or discussed at that time; they were simply collected. 

The members of the teams then came to an agreement on what the researchers would call a scaffold. The scaffold was an illustrative concept or insight that gave the team a framework to point them in the direction of a solution. 

For example, one of the teams, which the researchers called ‘Team Quality,’ had the task of preparing a program of quality best practices for their organization. The team responded by working together on a matrix. Each of the vertical columns represented a working list of best practices for quality; the horizontal rows represented how each division engaged in the practice and with what success. This matrix was the scaffold around which the team would build its solutions.

With a guiding scaffold in place, the teams ‘dialogued’ around the scaffold, refining and usually reframing it. With its matrix, for example, Team Quality discovered that different quality best practices worked for different functions. An organization-wide set of quality practices was not impossible; however, those practices would not be developed as originally planned: by looking at individual divisions.

While the scaffolds of the three teams helped team members in the early stages of solution-building, it confused the outside stakeholders to whom the teams first presented its concepts and ideas. All three teams eventually felt it best to put aside the scaffold and focus on the insights and solutions that the conceptual illustration had enabled.

For example, Team Space was asked to develop a new plan for usage of the workspace in the company’s multi-building compound. The team’s scaffold was the concept of ‘building personality’ — the architecture and structure of the buildings gave them a personality that would inform how they could or should be used. Outsider stakeholders didn’t understand how building personality tied into the final plan. The phrase ‘building personality’ all but disappeared from the team’s discussions and presentations.


Developing from their observations and analysis the concept of the scaffold, the researchers were able to identify five practices recommended for any organization using cross-functional teams to create innovation solutions:

Practice 1: Voicing fragments. The team surfaces a broad range of observational fragments, with no critiquing or follow-up discussion. This allows the team to share potential problem definitions and solutions and draws the focus away from inter-personal differences. 

Practice 2: Co-create the scaffold. A guiding concept is developed through or around which team members can share their knowledge in the search for solutions. 

Practice 3: Dialogue around the scaffold. The team works on conflicts and contradictions in the scaffold, which begins to fade as concrete solutions take over.

Practice 4: Move the scaffold aside. The scaffold set the team on its way toward solutions. Its presence as the developed solutions are presented to outside stakeholders only invites confusion, however. 

Practice 5: Sustained engagement. Members of a cross-functional team are pulled in different directions, with a priority on their regular function. As a result, team member can lose interest or become overwhelmed with the work. The researchers noticed three ways that the successful teams maintained the sustained engagement of their employees.

  1. Repeated summarizations. The fact that team members with other responsibilities are not able to attend all meetings and activities gives the team the opportunity to repeatedly review and summarize the team’s progress, thus continuously highlighting the team’s small victories.
  2. Sharing the unexpected. Assumptions that cross-functional team members have about each other can be shattered when team members reveal greater knowledge or understanding about other functions—which leads to all team members rethinking their assumptions.
  3. Using enthusiasm to drive the process. If some team members were not enthusiastic about an idea, it was usually dropped. What was left, therefore, were ideas and solutions that all team members fully supported, ensuring their continuous engagement.

These five practices, including the three pathways to the fifth practice, keep successful cross-functional teams focused on solutions rather than differences, consensus rather than conflict, and sharing knowledge quickly and pragmatically.



  Ann Majchrzak’s profile at Marshall School of Business
  Philip B. More’s profile at Marshall School of Business
  Samer Faraj’s profile at McGill University


Transcending Knowledge Differences in Cross-Functional Teams. Ann Majchrzak, Philip H. B. More & Samer Faraj. Organization Science (2012).

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Idea conceived

September 23, 2012

Idea posted

Sep 2020
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