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

By Stacey Weber
September 17, 2009

A cross-functional team helps communicate more broadly, gain alignment more easily, and builds better products. And as an added benefit, the team helps product managers spend more time in the market, figuring out what should be developed next year and the year after.


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.

The strategic product manager establishes, leads, and leverages a cohesive cross-functional team for their product. This group can provide valuable support and feedback for all its members. For Product Managers, the team provides considerable benefits. It helps communicate more broadly, gain alignment more easily, and build better products (hardware, software, and/or services). 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.

What exactly is the Cross-Functional Team and why should I have one?

When talking to product managers about “their team”, they are often thinking of their development team – those who actually build the product. The Product Manager enables the development team to succeed, by documenting great market research and writing clear, prioritized requirements. The development team is (obviously) important, building great solutions that make people want to buy. However, there is another team that we must consider. The “cross-functional team”. It’s a much broader concept than a development team, and rather than the pure technology that’s built in Development, it’s focused on the whole solution – technology, marketing, sales, support, professional services, production, localization….any department who spends time helping the product succeed. A cross-functional team can be a powerful tool for product managers, making the job easier and potentially more fun.

The cross-functional team is a group of people who collectively represent the entire organization’s interests in a specific product or product family. This team provides benefits for the individuals on the team, the product and its customers, and the organization at large.

For the individual, the team is a support group and cheering section. It’s a place where the individual can easily get updated information for their department, and it’s an environment where each individual is safe in bringing up issues or roadblocks they’re encountering. The group can help solve issues that are impacting any department. And, when there is positive news to share (e.g. a reduction in call volume in tech support, increase in sales revenue, development milestones completed on time within budget, etc.), it’s the group who will celebrate successes. All of this results in increased job satisfaction and motivation for team members.

The product and its customers will benefit from the cross-functional team as well, because it can inspire ongoing improvements in product quality. Team members provide input throughout the product life cycle, and also bring issues to the attention of the team for resolution. When the team is assembled appropriately, and meetings are run effectively, we see improvements in customer satisfaction due to increases in product quality and support.

As a Product Manager, you deal with many teams and committees – sometimes, there seem to be so many meetings there isn’t time to get anything else done! We make choices all the time about how to spend our time most effectively. When you are bustling about, trying to keep up with the fire-of-the-day, it’s easy to run your cross-functional team meeting in a haphazard manner, performing the function by rote and moving on to the next responsibility. Taking the time to focus on the cross-functional team will benefit you in the long run. One of the most powerful tools you have is a strong and healthy team. Assembling and leading this team is crucial to your product’s success. That success is dependent on your soft skills, your ability to pull a team together and get them facing the same direction.

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 Manager 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 Manager. 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 Manager’s job gets easier. Members can field a lot of questions on their own, without getting you involved. This allows the Product Manager to spend less time in the building, and more time focused on the most important part of our job, which is to find and quantify market problems.

To begin reaping the benefits of the team approach:

  1. Assemble the right individuals
  2. Create the team
  3. Stick together through good times and bad….

Assemble the right individuals

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. For example:

  • Project Management
  • Development Management
  • Quality Assurance
  • Product Design
  • Customer Support
  • Technical Publications
  • Production / Shipping
  • Information Technology
  • Product Marketing
  • Marketing Communications
  • Field Sales
  • Inside Sales
  • Sales Engineering
  • Professional Services
  • Legal
  • Accounting

Assemble the list, and begin choosing the individuals. These people are going to 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.

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