How do you foster a culture of ownership, accountability, trust, and openness in cross-functional teams? More importantly, how do you manage them for successful outcomes?
We spoke to some seasoned product leaders about their experiences and understanding what works and what doesn’t when leading a cross-functional team.
- Take time to observe the team at work before imposing your views as a leader, especially as a leader of a new team. The first 90 days should be used to watch, listen, speak to everyone and, in doing so, build trust
- Work hard to create goals that align with company goals. Your team should be able to participate in the process
- Have empathy — this enables you to understand someone else’s context, recognise blind spots, and fill any problematic gaps
- Always be clear about your plans — if you’re confident about the direction you want the team to go in, it will instill confidence for your team too
- Address how your team communicates. A comms manual can help everyone to navigate modern communication methods and avoid harmful assumptions/miscommunication
Take time to build trust
It may sound obvious but, as a product leader coming into a cross-functional team, you should start by watching and listening, rather imposing your views and processes. Product coach Katerina Suchkova comments that a lot of people come on to a team with good intentions, ideas and experiences from past companies thinking that they know what will work and then try to implement it straight away.
“What this creates is immediate resistance from the teams,” she says. She suggests you step back and spend the first couple of months watching and listening:“You should take maybe up to 90 days to build trust with the team. Ask questions, meet with every stakeholder, every leader of that cross functional team, so you build personal relationships, and you understand where they are coming from.” Katerina characterises it as working scientifically, gathering the data you need, so that you can then act as a product leader to work on the trends you see.
As part of this process of building trust, you should make sure you align design leaders and engineering leaders with your plans — so make sure you share your approach with them and “co-create any changes with them”, Katerina says. This is because “ownership of the goals starts when you’ve added a part of yourself. You’re part of the solution, rather than having something assigned to you”.
Work on ownership of goals
We know that teams perform best when they have mutual goals which are aligned to company goals. Even if you’re leading a feature team that’s working to become an empowered team, you can create goals within the team, Katerina says: “They could be cultural, they could be very product oriented, they could be process oriented,” she says. It’s easier in a truly empowered team where the company might work with SMART goals or OKRs, and you can work with design and engineering to create a sense of ownership of goals. Katerina says: “The way I’ve done it in the past is to solicit feedback and ideas from my direct reports on what they want to work on that contributes to the bigger company goals. You should try to get participation and give a voice to everyone in the company without necessarily feeling like you’re working at compromise.”
Of course there will always be the odd awkward team member: this is where it’s important to remember that people work to benefit their own individual interests. If their personal interests are aligned with the goals of the team, then they can no longer work to the detriment of the team.
Agata Bugaj, VP of Product at FullStory, agrees that success comes from alignment on goals and she also underlines the need for empathy when leading a cross-functional team. She says that at FullStory engineers and designers are happy to ask questions about why they’re working on something: “It’s because we trust each other and have empathy for each other. It’s a culture that helps us be better as a team. And we make sure that, if there are any blind spots, we address them.”
Working with empathy means making the space to understand someone else’s context, and not to jump to conclusions about why they have a certain perception, Agata says. “It’s also about assuming the best intentions, and reminding yourself that we’re all on the same team,” she adds.
She gives an example: “if someone were to say something like ‘I don’t know what product is working on’, without empathy you would just say there’s a roadmap and there’s a link. With empathy you would start by asking questions — ‘can you tell me more about why you don’t know what we’re building? What have you tried? Have you seen this link?’.”
Why clarity is paramount
Agata says cross-functional teams need clarity. ”You need clarity on the roles and responsibilities of everybody on the team. Does everyone know what a product manager does or what a designer does?” This aspect of working with cross-functional teams is one where product leader and coach Matt LeMay finds people often run into trouble. He says that people become more insecure when they work within a cross-functional team because they feel the team doesn’t fundamentally understand the work they do. “If I’m an engineer on a team of engineers we have some shared sense of understanding, there’s a baseline. But on a cross-functional team, I might be very concerned that people on my team don’t understand the work, and that they’re not going to appreciate it.
One effect of this, Matt finds, is that cross-functional teams can often fall into a pattern where one person presents their work and ideas and the rest of the team critique them. If people are worried their work won’t be understood they show up with an airtight argument and a clearly formulated plan, a plan that they are confident about and feel will instill confidence in the my team.
Leave space for contribution
The problem with this, Matt points out, is that being on the receiving end of an airtight presentation is not very interesting. And doesn’t leave the other people on the team feeling confident or involved in the work. Matt has seen this negative cycle in countless teams he’s led and coached: “Someone will say ‘here’s what we’re going to do’, and someone else will say, in order to feel like they’re taking part, ‘I don’t know about this, and we don’t like that’. Because the work is presented as fully-formed and complete, any suggestions or inputs are seen as threats and create a negative dynamic.”
Matt therefore advocates showing up with incomplete things, and letting your team complete the work. He says that at one of his recent coaching sessions for a cross-functional team one of the engineers told him that he always appreciated designers coming to him to tell him they were stuck: “That’s such a gesture of trust, when a designer comes to engineering and says ‘I’m stuck, this is as far as I can get’. It’s a very vulnerable and open gesture to come to your cross-functional team and say ‘I’m stuck, I need the team to move this forward’.”
It’s a very vulnerable and open gesture to come to your cross-functional team and say ‘I’m stuck, I need the team to move this forward’Matt LeMay, Product Coach
He also comments that when teams say they don’t have role clarity, they often mean that they don’t have goal clarity. Everyone can work out how they’re able to contribute when the team has clear, specific goals to work towards, he says. “The highest performing teams I’ve worked with are so focused on what they are trying to accomplish together, that the question of their individual contributions is resolved through working together.”
Address how you communicate with each other
Matt is also an advocate of retrospective meetings. If the team doesn’t understand the challenges they’re facing, then they won’t work to solve them, he says, and the challenges can often be unevenly distributed on cross-functional teams. He tells of a time when the engineers on his cross-functional team wanted to abandon their daily stand-up meetings. He got the team together and asked them all to rate the value they gained from the daily stand-ups. “It shifted the conversation, because the engineers saw that other people on the team found them valuable.”
A comms manual can be an invaluable asset for a cross-functional team. Matt believes that, often, documentation and tooling problems are in fact communication problems in a cross-functional team. He says: “If you’re documenting something, and you don’t know who’s going to use it, why they’re going to use it, or what matters for them, or you’re putting things in a Slack channel and no one responds to you, then you’ll probably feel resentful that your time is being wasted.”
He says he’s always surprised by how little time teams spend addressing the challenge of communication. He thinks many teams waste time thinking about communication, tools and documentation in the abstract rather than directly addressing how they communicate with each other. Teams should be asking, he says, “how do we communicate as a team? How do we make this happen? What channels do we use? How quickly do we expect a reply from each other?’. “Often the first question I ask a team when I start coaching is ‘when somebody on your team emails you how quickly do they expect a response?’. Most teams don’t know the answer. Or I’ll ask three people: the first person will say they expect an answer right away, the second person will say a day or two. And the third person will say that everybody knows they never answer emails and they need to be pinged on Slack. And then these teams wonder why they feel resentful, why they have things bubbling up under the surface that make it difficult for them to work together.”
He cautions that it doesn’t take much for a team operating agreement to fall into general platitudes. “This is why I really like comms manuals, because they’re tactical documents,” he says. “All that trust and openness and things that teams want starts with tactical operating agreements.”
No one said it would be easy
Managing a cross-functional team is a difficult path to tread — a product leader needs to allow everyone to be empowered but still lead and direct the team. As Katerina says: “The middle way is really difficult to find. You can’t satisfy everyone, and that’s okay. When you’re a leader, some people might not like the way you do things, but at the end of the day, it’s all about gaining trust and understanding and hitting goals.”
Discover more content and resources
There are also tricks and tools that make life on a cross-functional team easier. Matt LeMay’s One Page One Hour pledge and template invites people to pledge to spend no more than an hour working on any deliverable before sharing it with colleagues. Give it a try!