Not “cross-functional,” but “post-functional”

I recently blogged part of a presentation I gave at a Conference Board conference on global risk, integrity, and reputation management. This was a great conference, and it has prompted my thinking on a number of issues.

One point that several people made was that “risk management is everyone’s job.” It occurred to me that similar statements are probably made at a lot of other conferences, and rightly so. Marketing is everyone’s job. And so is financial management. And communications. And customer relations. In short, everything is everyone’s job.

So why do we still pretend it isn’t? Why do we organize people into functional siloes, only to have them expend considerable effort convincing people outside their silo to take responsibility for their function? It doesn’t make any sense.

I think we’re just stuck in the industrial-era way of organizing human effort. In an industrial-era factory, the people on the unloading dock were actually the ones responsible for unloading. The people on the assembly line were actually the ones responsible for assembly. The ones on the loading dock were actually the ones responsible for loading. It was that simple, and it would have been foolish to suggest that one of these groups was somehow responsible for the functions assigned to the others.

Not so in the post-industrial era, and that’s why there’s such a push for “cross-functional collaboration,” or “working across siloes.” But here’s the rub: If you don’t divide people into functions, then you don’t have to get them to work cross-functionally. So I’d suggest that we’re actually “post-functional,” in the sense that functions are no longer the most appropriate way to organize labor. In many cases, it may be more appropriate to organize people according to a specific business line, activity, or project, and then allow those using similar skill sets (akin to “functions”) to exchange information and hone their skills through less rigid structures like “affinity groups” or “communities of practice.” In fact, this is how many innovative organizational structures seem to work. In Holacracy, for example, people self-organize into interconnected but autonomous teams (called “circles”) that are defined not by function but by the work itself.

So let’s not get stuck in functions if there’s actually another way of organizing that would work better. If you find that you’re working very hard to improve the cross-functional collaboration in your organization, then ask yourself if the functions themselves may be more trouble than they’re worth. We’re in a different era now, and in many cases we will need to release ourselves from the old default ways of doing things. We’re not “cross-functional.” We’re actually “post-functional,” and in many cases there is a better way.