20 Ways to Succeed in Technology Cross-Functional Teams
Leadership at every level means learning from each other
Cross-functional teams are common these days in technology. Teams can consist of a mix of different types of software developers. They can also consist of a mix of data scientists, data analysts, machine learning engineers, and software developers. Or, they can consist of scientists and different types of software developers. If your team is truly cross-functional, it can consist of people from product, marketing, system support, and a mixture of developers. Due to the data-driven and AI-driven products that we’re creating, technology is driving the business in every way. It makes sense that business leaders and technology leaders work side-by-side.
Even though I spent my career in Corporate IT, I spent most of my time working with a mixture of developers, business analysts, business sponsors, and technology sponsors across a variety of projects. I genuinely enjoy working with different types of people in both technology and business. I like to work on cross-functional teams more than all other types of teams. On a cross-functional team I get to learn from all my peers.
Everyone has something to contribute. That, to me, is what a successful team should be about: teamwork.
1. Everyone Should Lead in Their Domain
On a cross-functional team, you’re working with leaders of their expert domain. Your colleagues aren’t just experts in their domain because of knowledge. They’re also experts because of their thoughts and ideas derived from their knowledge and experience.
When you’re a leader in the area of your expertise, lead. Don’t sit back and wait for someone to answer the questions. You have the answers. In meetings, ask the questions that are brewing in your head about the project. Then, answer your colleague’s questions with clarity.
2. Find a Friend
The best part of working on a cross-functional team is the close friendships that you establish with people who are experts in silos that are close to yours. If you’re an engineer, you might find bouncing ideas off the architect to be most effective. If you’re a data scientist, you might find brainstorming with the data engineer to be more effective than with the whole team.
Go and have coffee, tea, or lunch with the friend that you gravitate to the most on the team. Building just one close friendship with a team member can help you feel closer to other members of the team who are experts in vastly different domains.
3. Respect Other People’s Points of View Even When You Don’t Agree
Disagreements are inherently useful on a team. A good team manager will ask questions that will incite differing opinions. This allows everyone to speak their mind, and it will also help the team come to a better solution.
When you disagree on an area of knowledge that you’re an expert in, try not to wave the “expert” flag on other team members. See their points of view and use evidence to back up your “expert” opinions. Say, “Let me show you why!”
When you disagree on an area of knowledge that you’re not an expert in, try to respect other people’s domain of knowledge. If you know that they’re wrong, try to speak to them privately and discuss the issue. One of the critical parts of respect is to not embarrass experts in a team setting. Remember: Everyone’s a leader in their domain. It’s your job to help them be a leader.
4. Try to Learn From Others
Even if you’re not curious about the knowledge in other experts’ domains, try to be curious anyway. The team can function better if your ideas take inputs from other people’s ideas and so forth. Learning from other experts’ domains can help you come up with solutions from your domain.
When there’s a major disagreement on the team, pull aside one of the team members involved and learn from them. This will give them confidence. By talking out their ideas with you, they’ll process their thoughts more thoroughly as well.
5. Try to Add Positive Value
After a few months on a project, we all become human to one another. Before the project, we didn’t know each other. But, when we’re nearing the end, when everything hits the fan, when the pressure is on, we see each other “clearly” as human beings. This means that all of our “thorns” come out. Even if you’re a positive person, after not sleeping for two days, you’re complaining about every little issue arriving on your desk.
Try to remember that you’re here to add positive value. If you’re physically and mentally exhausted, you’re no longer able to add positive value, then, it's best to just go home and recuperate. It doesn’t matter if there’s a deadline. When you can’t function and you’re affecting your colleague’s ability to function, then the best thing is to work on “coming back”. Even though your colleagues depend on you to be there, they can also at least get their work done without you.
6. Bragging, Tearing People Down, and Playing One Member Against the Other Have No Place on the Team
We all do this. We raise our arms high when we finish fixing a huge bug that’s been bothering us for days. We give our colleagues a high-five. We feel awesome. We’re ready for that Friday night outing to brag about our success. Try to go out with your buddies outside of your workplace and brag about your accomplishments. Inside the team, other people might still be struggling. It’s a long project.
If you’re tearing people down and playing one team member against the other, just know that your time on the team won’t be long, and your time at your company won’t be long either. Don’t do it. It’s career suicide.
7. Listen With Genuine Interest and Feedback
Our time is valuable. We all want to go back to work on our parts of the project. When you’re together, this time is short. So make full use of it. If you’re asking someone to explain something, listen to what they’re saying. Then, summarize it back to them. This way, they will know to continue because you’ve given them a cue that you understood.
Listening is for understanding. If you’re just listening without actually listening, then it’s wasting time.
8. Tame Your Ego and Others Will Reciprocate
On a cross-functional team when everyone has their specialty, it should be easy to know that you’re simply not the “best.” I mean you may be a star in your domain, but you need everyone to complete the project. I don’t care if you’re an award-winning scientist with so many papers published that even getting on your schedule is difficult.
When you’re on a team, you’re just one part of the whole team. You contribute what you can and let others drive as well. Everyone’s there to help. Even if you’re married to the person who’s the CEO of the company, everyone’s not there to help “you”. Everyone’s there to help finish the project. The dream and vision are shared by everyone.
When you lift other people, others will reciprocate. It’s good for business and it’s good for you.
9. Spend One-on-One Time
Let’s say that in this portion of the project, you’re working very closely with one member of the team. Be sure to schedule one-on-one brainstorm sessions with this person every day. This way, you can resolve all the disagreements about this portion and be productive outside of the team meetings. You can also receive feedback much quicker. At the same time, you can work out what issues you want to bring up together at the team meetings.
It’s always good to branch off and work on a part of the project with a smaller group. It will help you build stronger ties, and it will also help you be more productive.
10. Manage Out-of-the-Box Thinking
Everyone’s creative and innovative. You’re not the only one who can think outside of the box. Some of the most quantitative people I know are the ones who can come up with the most creative solutions.
When someone suggests something that’s completely outside of the box, try to ask them to explain the relevance, the implementation, and the realistic details. Try to ask them questions to help them bring this idea into the context of the project, and ask them for possible steps of implementation.
Some of the most brilliant ideas are the ones that can generate cost-savings, time-savings, and resources-savings, but at first glance, you may say, “No, that’s going to revamp everything.” Then, once you think about the logistics, it may allow you to wrap up the project in record time.
Try not to be tied up by project plans, timelines, and implementation details. Try to stay flexible.
11. Jokes, Pranks, and Humor Has Limits
Sometimes, we lighten up our work in the hopes that everyone has a good time working on the project, but we forget that it’s a “workplace”. People have sensitivities to different types of jokes. Try to limit jokes about other people.
Make fun of the desk, the equipment, and the bad cafeteria food, but don’t make fun of someone’s “expert” area, don’t make fun of someone’s work habits, and certainly, don’t make fun of someone’s private life.
12. Use Understanding to Resolve Conflicts
When two large egos butt heads on the team and the team manager has to intervene, it’s never a pretty picture. It’s about the work. I can’t reiterate that enough. It’s also not college or high school. Even if your work is your life, it’s still “work”. You’re invested in your expertise, but when it’s used improperly for the project, or when your suggestions aren’t taken seriously, it can feel frustrating.
Keep the big picture in mind: It’s about the best way to get the work done. If you realize during the project that you don’t like working for the company’s goals, quit afterward if you can. Be professional during it. If it breaches ethical boundaries, then discuss it privately with the manager first.
13. Something About Your Colleague Bothers You
We all have these situations when one or two colleagues rub us the wrong way. Maybe your colleague picks his nose. Maybe you have a hard time understanding your colleague. Maybe your colleague has to go to the bathroom frequently. Everyone has weird, eccentric work habits that will tell others that we’re “weird and eccentric” human beings.
Tough luck. Have you looked around? The “weird and eccentric” people shine the brightest in our workplaces. Be supportive of them — they’ll bring value to your team project like no other. Chances are, something that you do annoys them too and they haven’t told you because they like you in other ways.
Someone once told me that I chewed too loudly. I stopped chewing gum during the project. If it’s a small annoyance and it bothers you, tell your colleague to see if a change can be made.
14. Have Some Common Sense
Out of all the points, this is probably the biggest. While working on a cross-functional team, have some common sense when you communicate with members of the team. If you know that someone likes to speak esoterically, then ask very simple questions that will elicit simple answers. If you know that someone likes to go on and on, cut the person short by saying, “Let me interrupt you, I hear what you are saying, but…” This will direct them back to the course of discussion.
15. Stick to the Domain That You’re Asked to Contribute
When we’re all experts in our domains, we don’t like to be told what to do. When our experts straddle expertise in different domains, then it’s often hard for us to work.
When you’re a data scientist who used to be a software engineer, and you want to tell the engineer that there’s a better way to write a piece of code, don’t do it. If it’s not critical, then let it go. If it’s critical, ask the software engineer some questions and try to see if they can arrive at the better solution.
You’re there in the data scientist capacity, not in a software engineering capacity. Stick to your role.
16. Show and Don’t Tell
Sometimes, those of us who are experts in our domains think too much. We have expert thoughts about topics that are difficult for others to understand. We can’t seem to verbalize those thoughts in a simple enough way for others to understand. In this case, draw a picture, show a piece of code, and teach members of the team.
Everyone’s specialized. It’s your job to teach them enough of the knowledge in your domain so they can understand the ideas you’ll come up with.
17. Don’t Alienate People
Let’s say that you work on a team with all business people, and there’s only one technologist. You don’t want to alienate the technologist in your business discussions.
Try to include the technologist whenever you can. For the work that’s irrelevant to their job, then just branch off with other business people. Don’t waste the technologist’s time when you’re bouncing your business ideas off the business people.
18. Do Your Work and Trust Others to Do Their Work
This one is especially hard when you’re waiting for someone to complete a portion of the project before you can complete yours. You might be able to start earlier if you helped your colleague. Don’t do it. If you help once, they’ll expect you to help all the time. Also, they’re accountable for their work. If you help them, they’ll also be accountable for your work.
Stick to your work. If you’re waiting, read a book. I know you have a stack of URLs bookmarked for reading.
19. Evaluate Team Members Objectively and Look at Their Performance Throughout the Project
In cross-functional teams, you’re often asked to give feedback about your colleagues at the end of the project. Sometimes, you’re also asked to give feedback during your project. Try to remember that this person is evaluating you too.
Stay objective in the workplace. Cite some specific work situations and see what your teammate’s performance was like. Give feedback that will help your teammate improve. People don’t want to hear praise all the time. Most people love critical feedback on their performance that’s made with care and thought.
20. Focus on the Goal
No matter what happens during the project, it has to be completed. The completion of the project has different meanings. But, in the end, it all comes to that. Whatever issues are raised, whatever problems we encounter, whatever disagreements that we have, they all lead to our goal of resolution.
We flex our creative muscles to help us solve these problems on our teams. It’s not just up to the project manager, product manager, or technical manager to get us there. We come up with resolutions with our colleagues to bring the project to completion.
Working on a cross-functional technology team is fun. The experience can not only improve your people skills, but it can also offer you a way to branch out in your ways of thinking, being, and working. At the same time, it forces you to learn different types of knowledge that you never thought you were even interested in. Keep an open mind, accept people, and be a good teammate. You can all celebrate when the project is completed. Maybe you’ll even joke about that difficult time when the two of you butted heads.
What are you waiting for?