The role of functions in cross-functional agile enterprises: managing the new matrix

By Amy Finn, Bill Knight

Organisations are increasingly adopting enterprise agility. But while our research shows that one of the key traits of an agile organisation is to ‘design for simplicity’, the irony is that this necessary shift from functionally oriented structures to cross-functional teams is disruptive, complex, and rarely discussed openly at C-suite level. In a cross-functional world, organisational agility results in a question mark hanging over functions that for decades have held enterprise decision-making authority and accountability. 

The answer to that problem can sometimes be found in Communities of Practice (CoP), a term often used interchangeably with Communities of Interest (CoI). CoPs are groups of individuals with a common interest in a specific skill or domain, in this case embedding organisational agility. Groups such as these often form organically as agile practitioners meet to share best (good) practice, where there is interest and motivation. CoPs can also be more formal structures designed to improve business performance and reduce duplication – in these cases often with greater accountability for policy setting and guardrails, and self-managing adherence to these. In some instances, workforce planning, talent allocation, career development and performance are also the remit of CoPs that embed their people into persistent teams. 

Contrary to the beliefs of many, the need for these domain- or skill-based groups to enable the ongoing development of expertise in the organisation doesn’t diminish in an agile enterprise. In fact, successful agile organisations typically attract highly self-motivated professionals who, without the organisational support given by CoPs to improve their mastery, will quickly disengage and seek new opportunities.  

In contrast, COPs help agile teams develop better quality products faster, reducing duplication. Successfully established communities are identifiable from motivated colleagues sharing experiences, and with increased interest and passion in their craft. Now more than ever, this is why COPs are key to attracting and retaining the best talent.

But the role of COPs and how they intersect effectively in the new matrix model with cross-functional agile teams is far from simple. Common challenges include: 

  • the provision of domain-specific method and guardrails without stifling the accountability and innovation of agile teams 
  • the need to support the long-term career expectations of colleagues without disrupting the knowledge and experience gained through working as part of persistent teams 
  • the ability to dedicate time and resource to ongoing learning and community building without impacting committed delivery  
  • the need to fund central CoPs without introducing unnecessary overhead for agile teams. 

So, what does it take for a CoP to be successful in an agile organisation?  

Four principles to establish and run a CoP successfully  

A successful CoP often does not start with a top-down approach but will harness the energy of passionate individuals already collaborating to drive improvement and seek out new knowledge and practices. Over time, the CoP may provide tools to support knowledge sharing, create space for development through allocated capacity and funding, and motivate colleagues and leaders to recognise CoP goals as part of their strategic objectives. 

Much has been written about leadership agility, often with a focus on the servant leadership required of those leading and enabling cross-functional teams. Less is said about leaders of these domain or skill-specific communities. CoPs also need passionate and ego-free leaders. Leaders who recognise their role is to build domain expertise and thought leadership; to support skills acquisition and long-term careers; and to do this in service of agile teams.  

In a world increasingly focused on cross-functional teams, follow these principles to ensure effective domain-based leadership: 

Collaboratively design ways of operating 

Functional teams have traditionally held greater levels of authority within the enterprise. The cross-functional model shifts strategic decision-making, funding and task management to cross-functional Value Stream leadership.  

When establishing CoPs, it’s essential to bring agile team leads and CoP leads together to agree a shared view of where accountability for policies, assurance and people practices is held, to avoid tension between matrixed leaders. This will mean unlearning and letting go of some of the functional norms of the past. 

Equip Communities of Practice to support capability and career success 

CoPs cannot be successful in a vacuum. Engagement between agile team leadership and CoPs to understand capability gaps, define strategic workforce plans and align on growth and success is essential. CoPs must have dedicated time to foster a feeling of community, dedicated funding to support effective knowledge sharing and grow skillsets in line with learning journeys, and dedicated objectives and feedback that provide a metrics-based view of success. 

Shift leadership and cultural norms 

The shift to the new matrix requires a major shift in mindset and behaviours at all levels. Domain leaders will need to spend dedicated time with teams where the value is created and the work is done, and let go of accountabilities they may have held in the past. This is fundamental for setting CoP strategy and direction. Without this grounding, CoPs will fail.  

The new norms will need to be role modelled by agile team and CoP leadership who work to collectively lead colleagues, and recognise that both success and failure will be shared. This can be achieved via dedicated coaching or development initiatives in response to highlighted capability gaps from across teams.  

Make CoPs part of strategic objectives and key results 

CoP goals must be tangibly linked to agile team goals so that the communities have clear line of sight to their impact on business and customer outcomes. Set clear strategic objectives for CoPs, measured by employee engagement (eNPS and NPS), numbers of improvement ideas completed and improved capability with learning journey process and accreditation where appropriate. By setting team and individual objectives, with key results attributable to CoPs, there will be shared higher performance.  

With the steps above, organisations can ensure that their CoP – whether informal or formal – is positioned to not just be a success, but to enable agile success across your entire organisation. By working closely and collaboratively with agile leads, supporting capability and career success, shifting away from the behaviour and norms of the past, and being closely aligned with strategic objectives and measurement, CoPs will be an enabling part of the matrix and power organisational agility.  


About the authors

Amy Finn PA people and talent expert
Bill Knight PA Agile Expert

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