Set the roles


“Can you offer some suggestions for working more effectively in a project management and cross-functional work environment? I’m working in cross-functional project teams more frequently. My company is using project management to guide the work. Problem is that we seem to be tripping over one another. Project leaders operate differently. Communication is vague. While project milestones are specified, it doesn’t seem like adequate attention is given to the work we’ve got on our plates in our work areas. It feels like work on top of work.”


Organizational structure and effective process are core issues in the reader’s question. In this column, I will address these concerns with an emphasis on effective collaboration within teams.

By typology, the reader is referencing a “matrix management” organizational structure. In these kinds of configurations, employees work within functional work groups and across functions in interdisciplinary teams, typically organized by customer, product, or project.

The reader references using a project management model to work cross-functionally. This is an encouraging sign, indicating the company is trying to be more sophisticated as it carries out its work in more sophisticated fashion. In our consulting experience supporting these kinds of initiatives, use of a performance framework is a positive sign of the kind of commitment that the company is making. At the same time, it is worth observing that the best performance frameworks encompass both the technical operating system (TOS), encompassing the tools, techniques, and technology that are utilized; and the human operating system (HOS), encompassing the people practices, communication modes, reporting and information dissemination methods that are utilized.

My sneaking suspicion, based on the reader’s question, is that the HOS is not in balance with the TOS. Like the kindergarten report card, for project teams (especially cross-functional or interdisciplinary teams) to perform effectively, participants must “work and play well with each other.”

The prescription here is to hold an “interdisciplinary meeting” in which the key parties and stakeholders (e.g., the project participants and members of the functional work areas from which they come) meet to sort through how the project team is to be pursued in the context of the entire work load that exists. This approach of “getting the whole system in the room” is a common organization development (OD) technique that, if properly facilitated, can create clarity of understanding regarding what is to be done (i.e., TOS) and how it is to be done (i.e., HOS).

Specifically, clarifying roles and responsibilities is an important outcome for these kinds of discussions. Such clarity can “tee u” calibrating and process checking conversations within the project team and across the functional work groups from which employees come.

Here are some general guidelines for effective roles and responsibilities in project teams:

Executive sponsor

  • Commit to innovative and “outside the box” pursuits.
  • Clarify scope/parameters and set context for the work with reference to organizational goals and objectives.
  • Operate as a “change catalyst.” Be bold and decisive—“aim beyond where you’ve been.”
  • Identify and engage participants.
  • Chair a “kick-off” meeting so that all are clear that the project is important.
  • Ensure that appropriate resources (e.g., time, tools/equipment, data/information, financial, etc.) are allocated.
  • Communicate with functional leaders (i.e., bosses of project leader and participants) of those who will be involved so that the expectations associated with their involvement are understood and can be clarified.
  • Monitor and measure performance and quality of the work.
  • Help others succeed!
  • Project leader

  • Commit to moving beyond the status quo. Operate as a “change champion.” Use “discontinuous thinking” to break with the past.
  • Facilitate creation of a charter, including: (a) case for change, (b) vision, (c) mission, (d) action plan (i.e., goal, rationale, objectives, resources, responsibilities, start and end dates, and evaluative criteria), (e) ground rules, and (f) meetings management considerations.
  • Act as a broker on behalf of project participants—coordinate their involvement with their functional leaders so daily and project work are well-tended and synthesized.
  • Communicate progress to sponsor on a regular basis, using both verbal and written modes.
  • Establish a sense of urgency and active involvement from participants.
  • Encourage input, use participative decision-making, and manage conflict.
  • Act as facilitator—organize the work, disseminate resources, offer timely feedback, negotiate agreement and commitment, etc.
  • Facilitate creation of a summary report that includes scope of work pursued, results, observations, recommendations, and next steps.
  • Help others succeed!
  • Project participants

  • Commit to the project with enthusiasm and a desire to do your best.
  • Balance competing demands and be proactive when you feel “stretched”— communicate with both the project leader and your boss.
  • Strive to be a “linker” by flexing, adapting, collaborating, etc. Remember, “It’s not about ‘me,’ it’s about ‘we.’”
  • Work productively—follow through on commitments, come to meetings prepared to contribute, and help others to do the same.
  • Seek clarification when you are confused.
  • Offer clarification when others are confused.
  • Operate as a critical thinker—seek evidence to support any course of action and verify the evidence that others offer.
  • Be a “change cheerleader”—take some risks by challenging processes and paradigms, “push the envelope,” don’t settle for “going through the motions” (and don’t let your colleagues do so, either!).
  • Help others succeed!
  • You will note that the last item in each list is, “Help others succeed!” The point of working in a team is to think in terms of the collective whole. What is the ultimate outcome sought? What is my role in contributing to that outcome? What can I do to link my work with the work of others? n

    Daniel A. Schroeder, Ph.D., is president of Brookfield-based Organization Development Consultants Inc. ( He can be reached at (262) 827-1901 or

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