Enterprise digitization's secret ingredient: Fusion teams

Cross-functional or 'fusion' teams are critical to meeting fast-changing digital challenges. Here are the four must-have team attributes for successful enterprise digitization.

Traditionally, IT employees worked on specific projects, engaged with stakeholders elsewhere in the business periodically and often in formulaic ways, and followed rigidly defined processes and methodologies. Today, the demands of enterprise digitization mean that up to 90% of IT employees work in flexible ways to deliver streams of improvements and innovations to business capabilities. These employees need to continually collaborate across organizational boundaries and be able to enter new terrains with few fixed protocols.

These cross-functional or "fusion" teams are ideally suited to tackling new and fast-changing digital challenges. Agile teams were early examples, and the trend is now extending into areas such as digital marketing teams where it's hard to tell the technologists and the marketers apart, or cross-functional teams to launch new digital products. Fusion teams may be widespread, but their performance is inconsistent. In fact, a 2017 survey by CEB, now Gartner, of over 500 fusion teams at large companies globally found that only one in four are effective. The rest are too slow or fail to generate business value, much less meet the challenges posed by enterprise digitization.

Fusion teams are often seen as "black boxes" with obscure internal workings and many variables that make it difficult to predict if the team will be successful. But the survey identified four characteristics that distinguish the most effective fusion teams from the rest:

1. Coaching commitment: Most employees focus on improving their individual performance with little consideration of how the rest of the team performs. However, members of successful fusion teams feel duty bound to coach each other to develop new areas of expertise and achieve the overall team objectives.

Members of successful fusion teams feel duty bound to coach each other to develop new areas of expertise and achieve the overall team objectives. IT leaders can encourage this commitment to coaching by giving teams shared incentives that drive collective performance.

IT leaders can encourage this commitment to coaching by giving teams shared incentives that drive collective performance. They can also promote intrinsic rewards for coaching -- for example, seeing a teammate thrive after learning a new skill, or receiving public recognition for effective coaching -- as these often have a greater impact than financial rewards.

2. Learning mindset: Fusion team members are open to learning experiences that are relevant beyond their current role. They don't worry too much if a new skill isn't immediately useful for climbing the next rung on the career ladder. This behavior is complementary to coaching commitment as it encourages team members to ramp up their collective skill sets while working on enterprise digital initiatives that may head in unanticipated directions.

Many employees are skeptical about this sort of learning because they don't see the connection to career progression, so one way to encourage a learning mindset is to provide career maps. These maps show how seemingly unrelated or lateral work experiences can help employees reach their long-term career goals.

3. Open disposition: Many enterprise digitization efforts cover new ground and are inherently uncertain, so it is important that fusion team members are open to risks and new ways of working. This behavior can be especially difficult for IT employees to embrace, as years of focus on standardization and operational discipline makes them process-centric and risk-averse.

CEB's research has identified a number of ways IT leadership teams can promote greater openness. For example, the choice of metrics on IT scorecards has a powerful effect on employees' risk tolerance and willingness to try new ways of working. Scorecards that emphasize innovation and speed encourage these behaviors, while scorecards that highlight time, budget delivery and operational performance have the opposite effect. IT leaders should also share examples when they personally took risks, experienced setbacks and applied learnings from those setbacks to succeed in the future.

4. Digital acumen: Members of successful fusion teams have a broad-based understanding of how enterprise digitization contributes to wider business goals. And they should understand the most important changes that are required take advantage of digital opportunities.

Unfortunately, in a recent CEB survey of almost 600 companies, more than half of the employees admitted that they lacked this knowledge. In response, leading companies are including digital acumen in everything from senior leadership development courses to training for frontline employees.

These four mutually reinforcing behaviors allow fusion teams to successfully pursue enterprise digital opportunities, enabling the team to work on overlapping tasks and activities, continually reshuffle responsibilities, and learn from each other to develop new expertise.

About the author
Andrew Horne is an IT practice leader at CEB, now Gartner, a best practice insight and technology company. He has authored studies on numerous topics of importance for including IT strategy development, performance and value measurement, business intelligence and big data, IT staff and leadership development, and IT innovation. He is currently based in London.

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