It isn’t uncommon to hear the word “cross-functional” a lot these days. “Our staff is cross-functional,” or “We cross-train our staff so people can handle different situations.” Let me try to persuade you that a having a staff that is simply cross-functional is only the first step. You could be missing out on a lot of great opportunities.

When dealing with nonprofit institutions like seminaries, churches, or the local YMCA, the concept of having a staff that is cross-functional seems like a great idea – and it is. Staff members are able to serve various functions and meet the needs of various tasks as they come about. However, the issue is that they often still approach everything as functional tasks which are separated by departments or job categories or job titles.

Institutions that focus on functional tasks separated by departments can be hampered by processes and organizational structures that cannot move dynamically or quickly. Functions exist within departments. As long as there are departments with separate functions, there will be friction, walls, hand-off points, and different “sides of the house.”

The Dynamic Triangle

What if we could have organizations that were supported by a structure and mindset that was innately dynamic, transparent, quick to adjust, and built for on-going change? I believe we can. One of the strongest architectural structures is the triangle. Each side of the triangle is supported by the other two sides. Cross-functionality is great – but it is only one side of the triangle. The other two sides are “Cross-thinktional” and “Cross-knowledgeable.”

These three concepts work together to create an organizational structure and culture that is able to meet the demands of today’s rapidly changing environment. It is the Dynamic Triangle (DT). Let’s define the three terms:

Cross-functional – Describes a process or an activity that crosses the boundary between functions. A cross-functional team consists of individuals from more than one organizational unit or function. A cross-functional staff member accomplishes tasks in multiple departments or functions.

Cross-thinktional – Describes the mindset associated with individuals who are capable of understanding and thinking systematically about the actions they take and decisions they make in the organization. A cross-thinktional staff member thinks about how her actions will impact the work of everyone else in the organization. A cross-thinktional staff member thinks about ways to improve the organization even if the idea is not related to his or her daily tasks.

Cross-knowledgeable – Describes a depth of understanding which extends throughout the work of the institution. A cross-knowledgeable employee knows a lot about many aspects of the organization. He or she has deep and wide institutional understanding.
(Thanks to Karen Walker Freeburg for the term Cross-thinktional!)

The Theory of Constraints

Adapted from Wikipedia
The Theory of Constraints is based on the premise that the rate of goal achievement is limited by at least one constraining process. Only by increasing flow through the constraint can overall improvement be achieved.

Assuming the goal of the organization has been articulated (e.g., increase capacity without increasing resources, increase net tuition, increase students, etc. ) the steps are:

  1. Identify the constraint (the resource or policy that prevents the organization from obtaining more of the goal)
  2. Decide how to exploit the constraint (get the most capacity out of the constrained process)
  3. Subordinate all other processes to above decision (align the whole system or organization to support the decision made above)
  4. Elevate the constraint (make other major changes needed to break the constraint)
  5. If, as a result of these steps, the constraint has moved, return to Step 1. Don’t let inertia become the constraint.

How is this related to the “Dynamic Triangle?” Institutions within theological education are always tasked with the need to increase services without increasing the budget. Another way of saying the same thing is, “Cut the budget.” How do we achieve that goal (flawed as it is)? I believe the Theory of Constraints, when connected to the concepts in the Dynamic Triangle, can be very helpful.

Two Practical Examples

ABC School
ABC School is a private, nonprofit school structured like most schools. It has an admissions office, a registrar, a financial aid office, a technology department, a student accounts office and so on. Each of those offices are responsible for accomplishing specific tasks and dealing with students (e.g. the registrar answers questions about courses and the registration process). This structure constrains the capacity of the school because each department has to deal with all student requests related to that department.

What if ABC School decided to reorganize so that all staff exhibited the concepts in the DT. A few members of the staff were then deployed as Enrollment Advisors whose primary responsibility was to work with students during the admissions process and then throughout the rest of their time at the school. When a student had questions about anything (e.g. technology, academic advising, their student account, registering for courses, etc.) their first point of contact would be the Enrollment Advisor. Because they exhibit all three sides of the DT, the Enrollment Advisors would be able to answer these questions. Because the leaders of the various departments no longer have to deal directly with students as often; their capacity for accomplishing tasks would increase. ABC School can now serve more students or decrease staff because it has the spare capacity to do so.

Northern Seminary

(my place of service)
Like most seminaries, Northern had a Doctor of Ministry Office which was responsible for developing the DMin program, recruiting and advising students, creating marketing materials in coordination with the Communications Department, finding professors for the courses, creating the course schedule, etc. We took a step back, looked a Northern as a system, and began thinking about more than simply cross-functionality, we found a better way to run our DMin program.

We no longer have a DMin Office. Everything has been integrated into the “whole.” Since 2009, we have more than doubled the number of DMin tracks we offer and tripled the number of students. DMin students talk to the same “admissions” people as master’s students. Program development is handled in the same way as all other program development – through a team. The DMin courses are simply part of an institutional course schedule which has decreased in size (less courses), but has enabled us to increase the number of programs available to students. By developing a system and training a staff based on the concepts of the Dynamic Triangle we have seen many positive results.

Contextualization?

Obviously, this concept is greatly impacted by the context in which an institution operates. However, as soon as I say that, many people will immediately use such a statement as an excuse for why the concept won’t work at their organization. I will admit that some organizations cannot immediately implement this concept. However, many service organizations can do this. While it must be contextualized, most, if not all, schools can implement these concepts.

Disagree or Agree?

As always, I invite your feedback? Where are the holes in this concept? What are its strengths? Where are the difficulties in applying this to your organization?