Ask the folks at Northwestern Mutual Life in Milwaukee when they started using cross-functional teams and they are likely to reply, "Well, the company is about 160 years old . . . ." In fact, teams are so thoroughly entrenched into the culture that people there don't remember when - if ever - they weren't the normal way of doing business.
In the early 1950s, the CEO brought together a cross-functional team of people from financial, investment, actuarial and other specialties to determine what computers would mean to the business world. As a result of this team's work, Northwestern Mutual created an early information services department that, the company feels, has given it a competitive advantage ever since. More recently, a cross-functional team created the company's World Wide Web site (northwesternmutual.com), which earned Microsoft Network's Pick of the Week designation in April this year.
Although cross-functional teams have long been a way of life at Northwestern Mutual, the company stays on the lookout for ways to make teams even more effective.
Not long ago, says Director of Human Resources Colleen Stenholt, the company began to modify the typical membership of cross-functional teams. Teams usually form in response to new initiatives that emerge from the company's …