Building effective cross-functional teams

Javier Otero
Jul 5, 2018 · 5 min read
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“Great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people,” said Steve Jobs to the Stanford graduating class of 2005. In his speech, Jobs compared his ideal model for business to The Beatles. “The four guys kept each other’s kind of negative tendencies in check. They balanced each other, and the total was greater than the sum of the parts,” Jobs said. Over the years, as I have navigated through the digital technology realm, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with various teams and play different roles, and the one thing that has always stood out to me is precisely what Jobs recognized — while tools and processes enhance our ability to create products, it is each individual that makes up a team, their unique set of skills, and their ability to work in harmony that makes exceptional products possible.

Digital products have become such an integral part of our lives. Constantly seeking and captivating our attention until one is “sucked into a hole through a handheld device,” as Alex Turner from the indie-rock band Arctic Monkeys eloquently puts it. However, these products don’t simply appear out of the ether — behind every product is a team that made it possible. Products are born as something remarkably fragile — an idea that can be dispelled at any moment. In most instances, ideas are conceived by an individual or a group with the intention of solving a problem they’re directly or indirectly experiencing, and further provoked into being by the question “How can this be better?” But, turning an idea into a product is easier said than done, and this is where an effective team comes into play. Having cohesiveness in a group, where individuals complement one another sets the stage for being able to launch a product successfully. As one begins the search to bring people onboard, it is essential, if not necessary, to consider all of the core functions that need to be fulfilled: finance, subject matter expertise, customer development, product management, project management, content strategy, marketing, design research, experience and visual design, software engineering, quality assurance, and development operations.

Yes, that’s quite the mouthful, but without each function, it makes the product recipe increasingly tricky to pull off. In an ideal scenario, the areas of expertise above are played by different team members; however, it is common that in some cases people traverse multiple capabilities. The fact is, the people in a team eventually performs tasks related to these disciplines whether they’re aware of it or not. Every team should be in the “aware of it” column; otherwise, over time they will feel the effects of it in subtle, yet very noticeable, ways. Once the needs of the team have been identified, one will be better equipped to hire the right people for the job.

During the hiring process, looking beyond typical position labels like “designer,” “copywriter,” or “backend developer” is critical. To build an effective cross-functional team, one has to think differently about how to find the right people and challenge their assumptions of what makes a good job description. Are there less accessible terms being used that limit the audience? Does the description call for a “unicorn,” “ninja,” or “genius” to join the team? One must choose a title that can be general enough to draw in the right people, specific enough to encapsulate the responsibilities, and open enough to candidly promote the opportunities for growth. Once a person is hired, well-written roles and responsibilities give a clear sense of where one can make an impact and leaves the door open for more without relying on ambiguity.

Building effective cross-functional teams enable benefits in three key areas. First, it makes the space for better collaboration and helps teams master communication — one of the most difficult challenges. When one takes a step back, the various disciplines joining forces to create digital products are stunningly different. For example, a team might have a researcher who struggles to understand why they must follow the “happy path,” otherwise the app will crash during a user interview, and a developer who challenges the value of a feature because it may force them to rethink the existing architecture. Much like the United Nations where interpreters and translators enable critical communications, cross-functional team members bring down significant barriers when describing needs and processes.

Second, it’s financially efficient. The budget to hire someone on a team that can only perform one function versus many is a definite win; however, a common argument is that a specialist is better than a generalist. That’s why it’s increasingly important to thoroughly screen candidates to ensure they serve roles best suited to their mix of skills. Proper vetting allows team leaders to make more informed decisions as one continues to add members that complement the needs of the team. It’s especially important because many candidates may claim they have competencies in areas they don’t.

Third, it promotes a unique opportunity for growth as everyone will get a chance to dive into other disciplines. Through constant multi-disciplinary interaction, individuals can adapt and apply approaches from the field of marketing, design, programming, and beyond to enhance the richness of their capabilities. Being a member of such a team is also riddled with fascinating trials, especially when your teammates have enough domain knowledge to question ways that are typically shrouded in mystery to intradisciplinary teams. Not being able to hide behind your expertise may seem intimidating and commonly makes teammates more prone to feeling vulnerable, however, it more often serves as a catalyst to break down barriers imposed in more traditional settings.

The most rewarding part of working in a cross-functional team is finding your groove, which is only possible through practice. Prioritizing and choosing which tasks to perform might seem like a solved problem with methodologies like Agile, however, such approaches leave out the critical details of how to interact with one another, especially when there is disagreement amongst teammates on how to deliver the work. This is another area that introduces non-trivial difficulties in building cohesiveness within a team and determines whether it makes it — or doesn’t. The key to navigating these challenges is to ensure you understand where your teammates are coming from, regularly communicate what you need to be successful, and work toward compromise to build a shared sense of ownership. Remember to ground yourself in the greater mission of the product along with values that foster a collaborative, open, and inclusive culture. As long as you keep this in mind, you’ll always find a way to move forward as a team.

This brings us back to the delicate balance of the importance of realizing that as you’re building a product you are also building a team. Each person has the potential to complement one another, and this often begins as a faint connection with other capabilities they may possess. Understanding how to see those lines and bring them to the forefront strengthens the bond of the team fabric, enhances the ability of the team in impactful ways, and draws all involved closer to a common goal: making things better and making better things.

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