Building a Fully Cross-Functional Team
9 July, 2021
Cross-functional teams are becoming more and more widespread, and their effectiveness serves as the most compelling argument for their existence. Most cross-functional teams consist of a developer, product manager, and designer, which is somehow becoming the norm.
Some years ago, as I was transitioning into a product role for the first time, I was given an opportunity to build a cross-functional team whose needs went beyond a traditional setup. I had to identify all functions that should contribute and group all the resources working in one team. How do I do that? Most of these people were not used to working together, and their managers were hesitant because they felt they were losing a team member.
The great thing was that the CEO was quite supportive from the start. They took on themselves to convince all affected people -- particularly managers who would have to give one of their team members -- that we would achieve more value by building this cross-functional team. After securing support, I had to identify all functions that should contribute and more specific roles within those functions. We needed three email managers, one analyst, and a data scientist, besides having developers, a product manager, and a designer. Once I knew what I needed, I started building the team.
I felt that a prerequisite for building a team was creating a common space within which collaboration will take place. I wanted everyone to sit together and be able to benefit from physical proximity. That included attending the same ceremonies -- from standups to retros -- and having the same KPI to which different team members will contribute differently. I wanted all of them to understand why working together was important and what their role was in this joint undertaking.
At first, people were not at all comfortable working together. It always takes time to get to know other people, so I arranged for a number of socializing activities, including lunches, team activities, etc. I wanted them to open up and bond more strongly as they develop more personal relationships. Soon I noticed how people on the team started to communicate more intensively and complement each other in their thinking. For example, a developer would say, “We plan to do this,” only to be interrupted by a CRM manager who would continue, “If you do this, then we have to do that.” By having them communicate directly, we managed to remove potential bottlenecks in communication. Typically, a manager, who is a centerpiece of the team, would have to anticipate blockers and communicate that between team members. People talking to each other directly meant one more benefit -- them bouncing ideas off resulted in increased innovation and faster execution.
However, friction would occasionally occur between managers responsible for some of our team members and me, and I had to make some tradeoffs. Instead of having those team members stay with us five days per week, they would be joining us three or four days and then work within their functions for a day or two. After all, this was not a bad idea -- they got to know about best practices and could bring that to the team. That remained a lasting challenge, though: I was trying to understand the best ratio for the team to be efficient and connected with their original functions. But, overall, it was such an inspiring experience. We managed to showcase the incredible value derived from diverse people working together toward the same goal.
- Include everyone that needs to be included. If you need someone from Finance or Brand, bring them to the team. Yes, some setups are more common than the others, but nothing except your needs should determine the setup.
- Make sure to explain the common goal and how each team member can contribute by cooperating on that particular project. Connect a group of people and make them a team by introducing a common space and processes.
- One of the main challenges of cross-functional teams is how to maintain good relationships with managers of people who will be added to your team. It is never easy to win them over. I would try to clarify that they are not giving away resources. On the contrary, they are contributing to something where their effort is worthwhile by adding, not giving away.
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