Cross-functional collaboration in times of uncertainty

Maximilian Stella
Apr 30, 2020 · 6 min read

How we launched new products for our merchants in the midst of a pandemic.

SumUppers collaborating in our Berlin office pre-lockdown.

Although the spread of COVID-19 has dominated international news since the end of last year, it feels like most of the world was caught by surprise, at least by the magnitude of its impact. Most of SumUp’s customers are small businesses — among them barbers, taxi drivers, personal trainers and cafe owners. As lockdown measures were hastily enforced across the globe, these merchants were among the first to feel the sudden economic hit of the crisis.

Our immediate priority was to figure out how we could best help our customers “weather the storm”, and this became our theme for the quarter. We spoke directly to many of them, monitored our data, and shifted our priorities to focus on products that would have an instant impact on our merchants’ ability to continue running their businesses. The response of our teams has been tremendous. Since an emergency all-hands meeting in mid-March, we’ve launched mobile payments, invoices, gift vouchers, an online store and offered additional support to merchants in the form of cash advances. One of our core values at SumUp is “We Care”, and throughout the past few weeks I’ve seen just how true this is, with regards to our customers, our communities and our fellow colleagues.

Melisa Duarte from our Employer Brand team, “weathering the storm” from home.

I’d like to give a bit of background to explain how our teams were able to respond to the crisis so quickly. At the end of 2018, we started transforming our Product and Engineering teams in order to focus on specific value streams. Like many other agile organisations, we ultimately adopted a “tribes and squads” structure, with a primary goal of creating autonomous teams. We believed, and still do, that only through true autonomy can teams deliver on their mission with speed and quality. One of the many lessons we learned along the way is that, in order for autonomy to truly prosper, you need two key ingredients:

  1. A well-articulated strategy forming boundaries for teams to operate within
  2. A loosely coupled architecture to enable code changes without permission from somebody outside the team, dependencies on other systems, or extensive communication and coordination with others.

Easier said than done. Especially when your company is blitzscaling (we’ve doubled in size each year over the last few years), onboarding new engineers, designers and product managers every month, and launching new products onto what until recently has been a codebase geared towards supporting a single product — card acceptance through a card terminal. We realised that with over 300 engineers spread across 6 locations, we needed to have clearly-mapped domains with well-established boundaries and a common agreement on how to operate across them. This is even more important when you have one common interface to speak to customers with — in our case, the SumUp mobile app and web client.

SumUp’s Berlin office before the days of social distancing.

But I don’t want to focus on technology in this post. The foundations for independent but collaborative software development is neatly described in various books — Accelerate Engineering is a SumUp favourite that I highly recommend. What I want to share is how teams need to constantly adapt themselves to a changing environment and work cross-functionally to achieve their goals.

We realised that even with the above two points articulated and implemented, autonomous teams were not always going to be the silver bullet we’d all hoped for. In an organisation like ours, nothing substitutes true cross-functional collaboration. Once you begin transforming your company, in our case into a multi-product organisation, no team can launch these products in total isolation. Although we have multiple products developed by different teams, our customer ultimately uses a single SumUp app. As such, everything we create needs to work seamlessly within this interface.

During the launches of these new products, our mobile apps required not only UI changes, but a fundamental rethinking of how new products will be discovered by our users inside the app. By allowing our merchants to access new products relying on online transactions, for which risk is significantly higher than transactions accepted via a card terminal, we had to rethink our onboarding and risk processes. Our marketing channels had to go through a complete overhaul: with 5 new products being launched within an extremely short time frame, our offering to merchants suddenly became much more complex. We pride ourselves on the automation of our support processes, and these too had to be revamped in light of this expanded offering. The list goes on.

No single team could have delivered any of these launches by themselves. And this is where the other ingredient of a truly successful organisation comes in — cross-functional collaboration. At first this might seem a little counter-intuitive to the autonomous teams we worked so hard on forming. But you need both to be successful.

Meeting space in SumUp’s Berlin office

So what is needed for cross-functional collaboration? I’ve observed the following key elements:

Build trust with your counterparts on other teams. Trust can take a long time to build, and multiple books have been written about trust being the foundation for any effective collaboration (my favourite is Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team). It ultimately comes down to keeping promises, open communication and predictive behaviour in stressful situations. I’d also stress the importance of a common, well-articulated mission and set of values. In the times of COVID-19, helping our stranded merchants became more important than ever, and reinforcing this message in meetings made sure everyone was immediately aligned. Cross-functional teams need to form around a clear initiative.

Encourage having a clear but flexible plan. We’ve successfully used OKRs as a tool to align all teams around the main objectives of the company for some time now. This has helped us tremendously in communicating our priorities to the whole organisation. But I’ve noticed that the tool can sometimes be misinterpreted as a strict plan. You can’t follow your quarterly OKRs to the letter. Things change, and you need to encourage teams to stay adaptive and responsive. I like analogies with football (the European one), so imagine if it starts raining, one of your players is sent off, your goalkeeper gets injured and you find out during the game that in order to make the play-offs you actually need to score 3 more goals and not defend a 0–0 result. You’ll need to massively rethink your game plan for this particular match, but not necessarily for the entire month or season.

Reward and encourage collaboration. Try to ingrain collaboration into your teams on a permanent basis through rituals and stories. It needs to be fun, and you should share successes and thank your counterparts. This is often overlooked. We use a monthly Demo Day to showcase the achievements of our teams. It’s a great opportunity to invite other teams to listen in, participate in role-plays and give credit where credit is due. Ultimately you want to ingrain cross-functional collaboration into the culture of your organisation. A generative culture is not something you can announce and then tick off your to-do list; you need to foster it over timeand it can’t be copied. It needs patience and continuous small actions, best exemplified through sharing stories of teams that have accomplished something through collaboration with others who they don’t usually work closely with.

So to summarise, yes you need autonomous teams to deliver products with the speed and quality you aspire to. But the more you grow and the more products you launch, the more you should prioritise cross-functional collaboration. It’s also important to keep in mind that you can’t maintain a pace like this continuously. Just like after intense exercise, you need a break to recharge your batteries, and your teams will need some well-deserved “downtime” to reflect on an intense period. Taking time to share your experiences, and to discuss what went well and what can be improved on, is equally important in shaping a culture of collaboration across the organisation.

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