The most successful products I’ve been involved within my career came about when the entire cross-functional team opened the door to the mission at the same time, with similar expectations, and on equal footing. In other words, these teams started together. Not in organizational silos. Not with each individual immediately going off to work on different aspects of the project. Together.
To explain why I believe starting together is so important for a business team, let me tell you a story about the music career I had before entering product management and UX.
What does starting together mean, and why is it so valuable for cross-functional teams?
In my 20s, I toured with a rock band. Just as we were about to launch our first national tour, our lead singer developed voice problems. (Coincidence? Who knows?)
We canceled upcoming shows so our singer could get medical treatment and voice coaching. While he was away, the rest of the band had to camp out in a run-down hotel room. All six of us, one room.
When he returned, our singer was stressed—about his career, about doing the vocal exercises his coach prescribed, about making sure we kept the hotel’s humidifier full of water so his throat wouldn’t dry out. And after waiting in that smelly room for our singer’s return, the rest of us were stressed as well.
As you can imagine, this led to frustration and conflict. The band had functioned as a single unit up to this point, and that cohesion and chemistry led to our national tour bookings. But now, because of this disruptive experience, we were no longer starting together. We were heading into our new tour not as one unit but instead with an “us-versus-him” dynamic.
So, what exactly do I mean by starting together?
Do you know those movie scenes where the band of imperfect heroes walks into the haunted house, or the cave with bats, or the scary room? It’s that shared experience of the entire team opening the door, all wondering at the same moment, “What’s in here?” The point is, we’re all in this thing together, and we’re going to make the same mistakes together, too.
The benefits of starting together can be enormous for a product team, or any team. Think of all the wonderful things that happen when people grapple with a problem together, where everyone on the team brings their unique perspective to a shared challenge.
What does not starting together look like?
Another way to understand the value of starting together is to think about what happens when you don’t.
Think of the lone UX researcher spending months getting ahead of the team, doing interviews solo, testing prototypes solo, etc.
You might also recognize the not-starting-together approach as a team holding lots of status meetings, assigning individual tasks, and occasionally gathering for small brainstorming sessions. On the surface, that might look like teamwork. What’s really happening day to day, however, is that all of these team members work in silos on their to-do lists. Not until the last moment, when they have a near-finished product, will this group come together as a cross-functional team.
Is your organization failing to create a starting-together culture?
Here are some questions to ask yourself and your team, to help spot the signs that you’re fostering a culture of not starting together:
- Do you allow individuals to spend a lot of time isolated from the team because they’re busy and have a lot of tasks to complete?
- Do some of the people on your cross-functional team like to go off and work alone so they can “get ahead” of a new project, and bring an airtight case to the team?
- Do you find that your team does a lot of backtracking and re-planning because various members weren’t on the same page about the mission?
If you recognize any of these scenarios, you might want to step back and think about how you can adjust this culture to create a safe environment for doing the messy but valuable work of starting together.
The value of working together
The benefits of a together culture don’t end after the team starts a project, either. That team needs to keep working together beyond the kickoff, the design sprint, the spike, or whatever the initial event is.
Remember, working together does not mean providing status checks or reporting to stakeholders. It also doesn’t mean individuals working in parallel toward the same goal. That’s not working together—it’s working as many teams of one.
Working together involves:
- Occasional pairing of members in different areas of a cross-functional team
- Swarming as a team on impediments
- Bringing the whole group to the whiteboard to brainstorm or solve issues
- Continually making sure the entire team is having a shared experience of making progress toward a common goal
I’ve experienced firsthand the many benefits of working together in this sense. Product management learns an enormous amount from engineering. Engineering gets a much better understanding of why product management prioritizes initiatives the way it does. Design and development gain fresh perspectives and improve each other’s work. Team members build bonds, trust, and concern for each other. They develop a shorthand language that speeds things up and makes everyone more efficient.
The list here could go on for pages—and the end result, in many cases, is a much better product.
The importance of finishing together
Finally, what does it mean to finish together, and why is this important for your team and your company’s success?
Product and service companies don’t experience many clear moments of “finished.” Sure, the work crosses the kanban board from left to right. Maybe it even reaches a column on the far right called “Done.” But done in this sense doesn’t mean the same thing it means at the end of a movie, where we all know it’s time to stand up and walk out of the building never to come back for that movie again.
For a cross-functional product team, finished probably means something more like, “We don’t need to think about this for while” or, “Wow. That was hard. We can breathe a sigh of relief now.”
Another reason done rarely means done in a business is that your product team’s “finished” might represent another group’s start—a team that now has to support the product you’ve just released. (Let’s hope that this support team is starting together!)
For a cross-functional team, then, finishing together can mean the team has had the shared experience of working on a project long enough to generate an outcome the group feels proud of. And now, instead of just handing off the work to the next group, that team can fold those people into the larger mission and support them.
In other words, finishing together involves a team finding a shared sense of closure at a given stage of the cross-functional team’s work. Then, understanding that in our line of work we’re never really “finished” with our projects, the team can continue working together to find ways of helping the rest of the organization fulfill its mission.
A few ideas on creating a cross-functional, finishing-together culture
I’ll leave you with some questions you can ask to start fostering a company culture of finishing together. I hope you give this approach a try. Starting, working, and finishing together can yield big benefits to any professional team.
- How are we helping our teams not get lost in the whirlpool of work, as efficient as that task-driven approach might be?
- How do we make shifting to a new project something to celebrate without the nagging guilt of leaving a bunch of debt in the product, or a booby trap for the next team?
- And how can we keep the gang together as much as possible, so they can finish and celebrate each success together?