Building a product is hard, just ask any product manager, entrepreneur, or CEO. Arriving at a successful product can be a hugely rewarding but difficult journey.
Luckily, over the many decades that companies have been building products, there are ways we’ve adapted to make this process easier. One of those adaptations is working in cross-functional teams.
In this article, we’ll go over what a cross-functional team is, the benefits and potential challenges to having them, and how to best support a cross-functional team within your organization.
A cross-functional team is made up of people with a variety of skills and who are all aligned to deliver a shared goal. All of the skills are needed to achieve the goal, and everyone in the team is incentivized to reach the goal. They are all “T-shaped” people.
A “T-shaped” person has a particular skill or mastery in a certain area. They have deep knowledge and experience, representing the vertical line in the T. However, they have some knowledge and a good dose of curiosity that goes beyond their speciality, representing the horizontal line of the T.
Members of a cross-functional team will all have an interest and some knowledge of the whole goal, product, and industry, in addition to their respective deep knowledge and experience that they bring to the team.
The benefits of a cross-functional team are huge, and many early-stage companies are just that — a single cross-functional team building out their first product. So what are these benefits and how can you maximize them?
Teamwork makes the dream work, as the saying goes, and it couldn’t be more applicable for cross-functional teams.
Your shared goal means you know where you’re going. You can also more easily understand how each member of the team is contributing to that goal. Take software development for example, engineers often have great ideas on how to achieve something, an idea that the designer or product manager may not even be aware of.
When you are working together, you are far more likely to tease these ideas out and innovate.
If you are on a team that’s working on multiple outcomes, you may end up regularly context switching. It can be hard to remember where you left off and then pick up the context to get back into the groove of your work.
When you are on a cross-functional team, you are all working to reach the same outcome all the time, enabling you to go faster and with greater focus.
This is a big benefit for more complex organizations, but is still applicable for all. I’m sure you’ve had that nightmare scenario where you have something super urgent or important to do, only to find out you need the help of another department. Suddenly, you need to have a bunch of conversations, not just about the work that needs doing, but also about the importance and urgency of it.
Anyone operating outside your team may not share your agenda, but a cross-functional team has one common purpose. A problem comes up late? Much less of an issue when the team can come together and fix things themselves.
As with everything, cross-functional teams do have their downsides. In this case, the biggest strength is also the biggest challenge.
Does it seem odd that, after listing out all those benefits of greater integration, I list communication as the biggest challenge? Well, with a team made of specialists in very different disciplines, the team has less in common than one made of the same disciplines.
We are (thankfully) finally learning how to work with more diversity in the workplace, and a cross-functional team has some diversity built-in, both in terms of how people think and how people operate. The training that a designer has been through is likely going to be different than that of a developer, which is likely to also be different to that of a product manager.
More thought and effort needs to go into explaining how decisions are made, but the benefits of this communication are huge and well worth the effort, as for any team.
If you are in a large organization, members of a cross-functional team need to be empowered to commit fully and get involved! This is especially true if team members are only committed to the team on a part-time basis.
Without this empowered mindset, you are unlikely to see the benefits of cross-functional collaboration and silos will start to appear.
So, how do you set up a cross-functional team? How do you maximize those benefits and minimize the challenges? Well, there are three steps that will set you up for success.
Much of the benefit of cross-functional teams is derived from the team all working towards the same goal, so make sure the goal is really clear. This is often a step that can feel too obvious when setting up a project.
Downplaying this step results in not enough time being given to defining the goal, which then results in people being pulled in all different directions.
Product management has tools to help you here. Define your goal with your product vision and KPIs in mind so that success is measurable and people can see clearly how their work is moving the metrics that matter.
If you know what you are going to be working on, you can map out the skills needed to carry out the work successfully.
The hard skills are going to be easy and obvious. For example, you are going to need developers who can write in the chosen programming language for a piece of software. Designers will need to understand the devices that customers will be using the software on and product managers will need to know the industry, business, technology, and customers (or, more likely, know at least one area and can learn the rest fast).
However, you also need to think about the other skills that make a team succeed. Who will be the enthusiastic optimist who rallies the troops? Who is always going to ask “why?” Who is going to keep you tight on the processes? And, commonly, which team member has the skills best suited to dealing with THAT stakeholder?
With this list you can build your team, matching the people to the skills and traits you need to ensure the team succeeds.
Luckily for product managers who build software products, the move to Agile has been pretty much universal. Deciding how to best work together is probably a case of making a few choices within existing frameworks.
But this stage is really important, as it goes back to one of the biggest challenges with cross-functional teams. If you have set rules about your ways of working, it will help communication flow between team members.
For example, a backlog refinement session is when product managers can introduce work to the development team and everyone gets to discuss the implications of moving forward with that piece of work. It is a safe space for people to ask questions, challenge assumptions, and bring the team up to the same level of understanding.
There will likely be all sorts of different aspects you need to consider with your team; it will depend on your purpose and the context in which you are operating. Fix a starting position and build processes that the team can change and adapt over time.
Cross-functional teams are a fantastic way to bring together different people and skill sets to achieve a common goal. A cross-functional team can achieve faster and more effective outcomes from greater collaboration, focus, and fewer dependencies.
Give thought to what and who you need on the team and design how they will work together to achieve the greatest outcomes.
Featured image source: IconScout
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