Product Management’s Role in a Modern Cross-Functional Team

Would it surprise you to learn that, in the early days of scrum, product managers weren’t generally considered part of the cross-functional team building the product? Or that some early versions of the Scrum Guide even recommended against allowing product managers to speak during the daily scrum standups?

The role of the product manager in an agile cross-functional team has evolved a great deal in the decades since. But a lack of consensus remains concerning precisely what a product manager’s role should look like on a cross-functional team.

How Do Product Managers Work with Other teams?

Product managers don’t build products by themselves. They gather the business requirements based on extensive user research, translate company strategies and goals into roadmaps, and all sorts of things to set the stage. But it’s others that design the screens, write the code, bill the customers, etc.

Interactions with other teams tend to rely on information exchanges. Product managers explain what needs building, why it’s essential, and the desired outcomes while highlighting any particular constraints or specific issues. They may have to do some groundwork to get buy-in and build consensus, using supporting evidence and data to create alignment.

From there, product managers make themselves available to offer feedback on potential implementation ideas and prototypes, clarify requirements as needed, and answer any other questions that arise. If trade-offs exist, they’re consulted and often make the final call.

What is a Cross-Functional Product Team?

Cross-functional product teams recognize that products shouldn’t be built with handoffs between one siloed team, creating a structure where everyone contributing to the product’s creation and success proactively collaborates. This arrangement fosters increased and more efficient communication thanks to the frequency of interactions, increasing comfort levels over time, and, most importantly, a shared mission and purpose.

These teams meet regularly, sometimes co-locating, and don’t rely on rigid reporting structures to work across departments. The organic synergies arising from this format ideally result in products that ship faster, have fewer quality issues, and deliver increased customer value.

What Companies Use Cross-Functional Teams?

You’ll find cross-functional teams in many industries at companies of all sizes. They use them to accelerate innovation and creativity, shorten development cycles, and increase the diversity of viewpoints collaborating on each project.

Apple has been using cross-functional teams for decades, including the team that developed the original iPhone. This structure helps Apple keep its much-loved user experience consistent throughout its products and aligns contributors from different disciplines.

Cisco is another company that has been employing cross-functional teams to accelerate innovation. For 20+ years, they’ve used these teams to avoid the traps of top-down and bottom-up management styles, instead of letting each team have some autonomy and combine their expertise to create market share-dominating solutions in the networking space.

Northwestern Mutual had relied on cross-functional teams since the 1950s when they formed groups to integrate computing into their insurance business. These teams helped them develop one of the first information systems departments in the U.S. They continue to use this model to ensure the customer experience is always first-rate and consistent.

Can scrum teams be cross-functional?

Perhaps the better question is whether an effective scrum team can be anything other than cross-functional. The whole point of the scrum methodology is rapidly iterating and using those learnings to keep innovating in the interests of delighting customers and achieving business objectives. 

Suppose you don’t have representatives familiar with each aspect of the product and core business functions. In that case, scrum teams may get bogged down waiting for external input and approval, or they’ll forge ahead without including feedback and insights from internal subject matter experts from other departments.

By including representatives from multiple departments on the scrum team, those voices are heard in real-time, enabling quicker and more confident decisions, which improves the impact of each sprint and the overall effectiveness and output of the team.

Download the Cross-Functional Partnerships Checklist ➜

4 Tips for Product Managers in Cross-Functional Teams

The topics were covered in a webinar hosted by The Product Stack, a group of like-minded companies offering practical solutions to modern product teams. ProductPlan’s agile coach Jennifer Payne was on the panel. 

They addressed a wide range of questions on how product managers can effectively create a high-performing team from a disparate group of QA engineers, software developers, UX/UI designers, and project managers. The panelists offered tips for product managers to build and inspire their cross-functional teams.

1. Focus on building team cohesion and chemistry

Every solid requires trust, which only happens with open communication, transparency, respect, and empathy.

Note that this won’t eliminate disagreements within your team. Instead, it relies on building a team culture that allows for and welcomes healthy, respectful debate. 

Challenging assumptions and questioning tactics create a more robust result. This gives the team confidence they’re on the right track. It also established psychological safety for team members, where they feel comfortable voicing opinions and insights that may counter the current line of thinking.

2. Develop one-on-one relationships with each person on the team

The team won’t always have the same perspective, temperament, values, or concern. That’s a good thing! The diversity of views and opinions sparks more meaningful discussion and uncovers potential problems earlier in the process.

Part of a product manager’s role in building a cross-functional development team is fostering trust with each team member. Trust manifests when speaking to them as individuals and connecting with matters most to them. From now on, you can ensure their concerns remain touched upon and tapped when they can add value.

3. Help everyone understand how their roles contribute to the larger picture

Product managers also serve as team motivators. But that only comes when the rest of the team understands why they need to do something.

Take time to ensure, for example, that a developer knows not only what you want to be coded but also why. Understanding how that coding works will directly benefit the product and its users. This information provides invaluable context for the business, often leading to a superior work product.

4. Keep your cross-functional team connected even as it grows.

A common challenge plagues cross-functional teams is the erosion of that initial cohesion and chemistry over time. Adding new members and increasing the team’s scope and responsibilities often instigates this disconnect.

Product managers can mitigate this with regular conversations, frequent updates, and team communication. Effective communications help maintain that sense of community and teamwork even as the team’s membership, locations, and project load evolve.

Download the Product Manager's Toolkit ➜

So, Where Should You Start?

Not every project requires a cross-functional team, so reserve them for complicated, strategically essential endeavors. They work best when success demands frequent input and collaboration across a broad spectrum of stakeholders and contributors.

Cross-functional teams work best when people thrive when working collaboratively or autonomously. Team leaders should be adept at delegation and confident enough to moderate discussions and debates that arise.

Once assembled, each team member’s role gets clearly defined, with their scope of work and responsibilities documented. Documentation holds the product team accountable. 

The team should have well-defined, finite goals. While the team might stick together for years, membership will inevitably shift. The team will evolve as projects progress and priorities shift. These aren’t permanent arrangements, but rather all-star squads pulled together to take on a challenge.

We suggest viewing the webinar for more practical advice on using cross-functional teams to expedite innovation and accelerate growth and customer satisfaction.