Enabling Cross-Functional Teams: A Leadership Role for Product Managers

In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni quotes a friend as saying “If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.” When there is a strong and healthy team, everything works more smoothly. We build better products, sell more effectively, support them expertly, and in the end, make more money. (To see what happens when a team isn’t on the same page, check out our new video and download our survival guide.) The strategic product leader establishes, leads and leverages a cohesive cross-functional team for their product. This team can provide valuable support and feedback for all its members, including the product group. It helps communicate more broadly, gain alignment more easily and build better products. And as an added benefit, this team helps us get more time in the market, figuring out what we should be doing next year and the year after. A healthy team improves organizational alignment. Members are kept “in the know” regarding product status, including market research, customer feedback, product development progress, product-related financials, and promotional plans and events. While the product group will continue to communicate across the organization, the cross-functional team members carry some of the responsibility. Each member brings information from the cross-functional team to their own department or group. In addition, they give the team their own department’s feedback. When folks in their department have a question, the cross-functional representative often has the necessary information and can answer the question (without calling you!). The cross-functional team allows you to get one representative group aligned; in turn, they exponentially increase organizational awareness and alignment. Assembling a cross-functional team and leading with market facts is the domain of the product group. A strong team results in increased job satisfaction and motivation for the individual, improvements in product quality (and therefore customer satisfaction), and elevated awareness and alignment for the organization. With a strong cross-functional team, the product group’s job gets easier. Members can field a lot of questions on their own. This allows you to spend less time in the building, and more time focused on the most important part of the job: finding and quantifying market problems. A highly effective cross-functional team includes representatives from across the company. It should include one person from all departments or groups that spend time ensuring the success of this product. Assemble the list, and begin choosing the individuals. These people will have a dual purpose. First, they will be the ambassador for their functional area, bringing information from their department or group to the product team. Second, they’ll serve as the representative of the product, communicating back to their department. The team will benefit from members who are knowledgeable about the product and/or market, passionate about what the company does and who have influence within their own department. Think through each area, and determine who fits the cross-functional requirements. For example, think of your customer support team. How many people support your product? Are there varied levels of skill? Who will be able to articulate issues coming from customer support and communicate them back to the team? Do they also have the ability to influence the behavior of customer support? Think about a new project; will this person be helpful in gaining the support of their department? Will they be helpful in getting customer support people on board with changes? Consider your organizational culture. Do you need to talk to managers first, or can you directly invite the individuals? This may vary across departments. Generally, it is a good practice to notify managers that you are assembling a team, and ask them to voice any concerns or objections. They need to know who you will ask (from your candidate list), the purpose of the team (product ambassadors) and the time requirement (a few hours a week, sometimes more if reviewing requirements or design). Remind them that this team is going to add fuel to the revenue machine and increase awareness within individual departments. Next, approach the individuals. If your company doesn’t have a culture of cross-functional teams, you probably want to go and talk to each candidate. If this concept is already in practice, an email should suffice. Explain that you are putting together a cross-functional team. The team should only require a few hours each week (less for some members, such as legal and accounting), and the members will be included in all communication about the product. They will also be included in requirement and design reviews, to enhance product quality. Meetings will have agendas, and notes will be taken and distributed. Action items will be recorded and tracked. (The last two points are included to reassure people the team will have purpose and action.) Keep a record of who has agreed to participate. Continue working through this until you have a fully staffed team, with each appropriate group or department represented. The cross-functional team is more effective when it stays together for the life of the product, rather than for an individual project. Over time, members will change and the focus will vary. To keep the team spirit strong, continually look for ways to build rapport between the members. Perhaps most importantly, share valuable information with the team. Begin to monitor the data you see, and bring pertinent information to the team. Knowledge is power, and you want this team to be a powerful product advocate within the organization. Share your stories. When you go to a trade show or meet a potential, talk about the high points at the next meeting. When a long-time customer calls to let you know they loved the most recent update, share that with the team. Be the voice of the market, so the entire cross-functional team understands what’s out there. Focusing on the cross-functional team will lead to products that work better and get built more efficiently. But if your team isn’t meshing, it’s time for a change. For more about cross-functional teams, read the full article by Stacey Weber.
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