Supporting Lines Uncross Cross-functional Teamwork

I frequently coach people on navigating cross-functional relationships. Cross-functional teams often struggle because people focus on who reports to who, instead of who supports who. Google is a company that looks beyond its org chart and reporting structure, defining a team as a group of people who “solve problems, make decisions, and review progress in service of a specific project”.

That sounds like cross-functional teamwork.  Or perhaps just functional teamwork. The “cross” only exists as a reference to the artificial structural overlay of the org chart.  The org chart has little to do with how cross-functional teams deliver organization-wide initiatives – aka the initiatives that matter most for innovation, growth and perhaps even survival.

What would happen if we spent more time focused on how people around the organization could support each other, than how people report to each other?  How might we work collaboratively on complex, important initiatives, instead of working in silos or trying to avoid blame when the big initiative inevitably fails, yet again?

The Supporting Lines model helps uncross cross-functional teams.

  • Identify an owner. Each major initiative needs a single owner.  
  • Build the Supporting Lines team. The owner picks a dream team from around the organization to support a successful outcome. This team represents the key Supporting Lines for the initiative. The owner can pick people from any team, regardless of who they report to. While there does need to be engagement from each person’s leader, the fact that this is a major initiative should help.  Resistance may imply that the company is stuck in reporting line fiefdoms or the team needs to revisit the ‘why’ of the initiative.
  • Conduct a mutual orientation. The initiative owner and each ‘direct support’ mutually orient each other around what they are trying to accomplish, their own operating challenges and competing priorities.  They discuss why each person has been selected for the team and consider the support needed to establish the Supporting Line.
  • Establish a firm commitment. There is a firm, written commitment to provide specific support by a specific time and deeper engagement with the initiative itself. People understand the project management details, why they are there and specifically, how they will contribute to a successful outcome.

If this sounds crazy we should talk. Teams want to be empowered. They want to deliver big initiatives. I have seen this approach dramatically improve performance, adding millions to the bottom line and increasing team engagement.  

Great leaders see Supporting Lines, not reporting lines.

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