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

September 17, 2009

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.

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 think of 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 his department? Will they be helpful in getting Customer Support people on board with changes?

Create your list of candidates, and get ready to recruit.

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.

With the team identified, you’ve got some administrative work to do.

Create an email group that includes all team members. If your systems support it, make this a public group so everyone on the team has access to the list.

If you have an intranet or wiki dedicated to the product, the staff list should also be included there.
You’re going to want to send an official invite to each member of the team, so they’ve got the purpose in writing. Compose the message with thought, and consider the current state of the product; give examples of upcoming events that will be covered with the cross-functional team.

We’ll cover the purpose and flow of team meetings in a moment. For now, finish up the administration by scheduling a regularly occurring meeting. Generally, these should be held for one hour every other week. If you are close to a launch, weekly meetings might be appropriate. On the other hand, if the product is in minimal maintenance mode and the client base is small and stable, then monthly meetings might be enough.

Finding a time can be tricky, considering you may have a dozen people on the team. Pick a time and rotation that works for most of the group; if you are forced to exclude someone, try to make it a less-involved department (legal, for instance…unless your product has a lot of legal issues right now).

Create the team

Team members come to the meeting from their own world. They are taking the time to focus on your product, and most of them have voluntarily joined the team. None of these people report to you. In order to gain their support, you must first gain their trust. The team meeting will be the primary communication vehicle, so think it through in the terms of the agenda.

The Agenda: Discussion guide, not crutch
There must be balance in the dependence on the agenda. Sometimes, it becomes the controlling document for the meeting. The meeting leader follows it heavily, perhaps even adding time allotments for each item. That close reliance on the agenda can stifle conversation; people get too focused on “getting through it”, and (perhaps subconsciously) don’t go deep enough when new information is presented and needs to be discussed.

On the other hand, it’s difficult to get the team to place a priority on this meeting if they don’t have any idea of the topics for the day. The agenda is part marketing, part organization. When exciting, thought-provoking items are on the agenda, people come to the meeting looking forward to hearing good information or giving their input on a topic they’ve considered. Use the agenda as a discussion guide to help team members prepare.

Be prepared to stray from the agenda, if discussion warrants it. During the meeting, if someone brings up a topic that’s not on the agenda, you have to make a choice. Consider where you are in the meeting – is it better to let the discussion continue right now, or does this need to get placed at the end of other agenda items? Or, is it a topic that requires a subset of the team, and should be discussed in a separate venue?

Some teams tend to become very technically focused; every topic becomes a technical debate. As the team leader, be wary! If the conversation is too technical, and only requires people from Development, please don’t waste everyone else’s time. This is a gray line – sometimes you need to drop into the details for a moment, to grab a solution and return – but if you’re stuck in the weeds, pondering one technical detail after another, team members will become alienated and stop attending.

For many groups, the meeting might actually be more effective without an agenda; then, each member could just bring up top-of-mind issues. While this group does need a preview of what will be discussed, you want to allow flexibility. The agenda lists interesting topics that will get people thinking and get them to the meeting.
Use the agenda as a flexible guide to the discussion, and stray as needed.

Components of the agenda
A typical agenda looks like this:

Product ABC Cross-Functional Team Meeting
9-10 AM, Monday, April 20, 2009
Conference Room Lakeview

  1. Status of the currently released product, version 1.23c
  2. Status of current project, version 2.00c
  3. Update on the new company approach to documentation
  4. Individual status updates
  5. Review action items
  6. Next meeting: Monday, May 4 – agenda items by COB the prior Thursday

This basic agenda can provide the framework necessary to draw out the right conversations and enable the team to find cross-functionally satisfying solutions to the inevitable issues. Let’s take a look at each part.

  1. Status of the currently released product, version 1.23c
    Some of the team members will be distracted when they walk into the room. They’ve just arrived from troubleshooting a customer issue, or tracking down an elusive bug found in the field. Start out by discussing current issues, so you can set them aside and move on.

    Keep this section limited to the things the team needs to discuss. For instance, perhaps Customer Support has been trying to recreate an issue. With Development and Quality Assurance in the room, they might get clues as to what to try next. Or if Development has been working an issue and needs more information, they can ask Customer Support to reach out to the client.

    If Sales just had a good experience, this would be the place to let them tell that story. Development is often encouraged when they hear how their recent achievements are driving revenue in the field. Use the beginning of the meeting to catch up on the version in the field.

  2. Status of current project, version 2.00c
    The next section will be used to bring everyone up to speed on current activities with the project in Development. If you have a defined Development process, let the team know what phase you’re in, and when you’ll be moving on to the next.

    Early in the Development cycle, this section will primarily be Product Management, reporting on status of requirement reviews and updates. Later, Product Design will be the most active group, and will inform everyone of where we are on interface design and prototyping. The focus then shifts to Development, as things are actually built. And when you near the launch date, Product Marketing or the Launch Manager (or the Product Manager, if doing the whole job) takes center stage.

    The activity changes, but the section stays the same – discussions surrounding the project in Development. Either of these sections might include more detail, if there are specific topics to cover – but remember to keep the agenda short. It is a guideline for the discussion; it is preferable for the bulk of the communication to happen interactively and collaboratively in the meeting.

    Sometimes, you should include reference material with the agenda. Perhaps you’re going to discuss a particular bug. It would be handy to have the bug report, and even the list of customers who have reported it.

  3. Update on the new company approach to documentation
    In this section, list agenda items that have been submitted by the group. These are items that require more than a minute, or topics you want people to think about prior to the meeting. In the example, Technical Publications wants to inform the team of a new approach to all documentation in the company. People have probably already heard rumors of a change, so it makes sense to list it in the agenda. This way, anyone who wants to know what’s really happening can come and get the scoop.

    Anyone on the team should be able to submit agenda items. About four days prior to the team meeting, send an email requesting agenda items. Review these, and add them to the list if they are appropriate. Sometimes, team members will send the agenda items that don’t really involve the whole team. In these cases, consider redirecting the request so it’s handled outside team time. You’re only going to have the dedicated attention of this group for one hour, so we’ve got to maximize the topics. Good topics pertain to the entire team – either a call for help, or an extension of valuable information.

  4. Individual status updates
    This section is intended to draw in the members, and ensure that everyone has some time even if they didn’t have specific agenda items. Move around the table, and give everyone a few minutes to update the team on things that might be pertinent.

    As the team gets more cohesive, this update section will get sharper. People begin to clearly see things the team can help with, and start to leverage this skilled group for the important problems and opportunities they encounter.

    In order to keep this meeting to an hour, individual updates should be kept to 3 minutes or less. If someone brings up an important topic that will go beyond the 3 minutes, consider finishing the round table and coming back to the conversation later. Or, table it for another time. Don’t allow one team member to dominate the precious team time.

  5. Review action items
    As you discuss topics, action items must be captured. List the current action items in the agenda; include a description of the item, date assigned, the owner, and status/completion target. At each meeting, review the list. Update it with new items, and include it in meeting notes. This will help drive accomplishments and reinforce the importance of the cross-functional team.

  6. Next meeting: Monday, May 4 – agenda items by COB the prior Thursday
    As you are getting ready to wrap up the meeting, remind everyone of the next meeting. This section could also include items such as requirement reviews or training sessions.

A well-crafted agenda will maximize the time you spend with the cross-functional team.

Final preparation for the team meeting
The regular cross-functional team meeting is your primary communication vehicle to the team. In turn, the team will carry your message back to their individual departments and teams – so the information shared here forms the basis of communication to the entire organization.

You’ve put yourself in a position to succeed by planning the team, requesting agenda items, and sending the agenda to the team. On the day of the meeting, spend a little time preparing. Are there reference materials you should bring? Are you sharing something with the team, and need to bring copies? Do you need a projector?

It will only take a few minutes to get ready to run an outstanding meeting.

Running the meeting
You have to show up on time, or even a few minutes early. This is a powerful group, and they’re expensive. You’re spending company money to bring everyone into the room, and each member of the team has a full-time job to think about. Ensure the time is spent well – that members leave each meeting with valuable information or answers. Respect the members by starting the meeting on time, and ending on time or early. It seems like a simple concept, but how many times have you been stuck in a meeting that’s gone far beyond the established time limit? Plan the content and run the meeting effectively, recognizing that each team member’s time is a valuable asset they cannot replace.

  • Don’t be too dependent on the agenda

  • Start on time, end on time (or early)

  • Provide valuable information

  • Track action items

  • Take notes, and publish them

This group can be a test of your leadership skills. There are a lot of varied personalities in the room, and it’s important that everyone begin to understand each other. The Development representative has a very different view of the world than Sales. Be prepared to translate for the team members.

When the lead engineer says, “I have one severity 1 bug, number 639, to discuss. I tracked this one down this morning, and it’s nasty. The fix is going to take about two weeks, and I’ll have to update the search engine so we’ll need to retest that whole area.”

And Quality Assurance adds, “The testing in that area generally takes about four weeks, but with an update we should probably add a few weeks on to that for the learning curve and unexpected issues.”

The salesperson hears, “Delayed release, broken promises, personal failure, impending doom.”
The Product Manager can level-set (not just for Sales -- everyone in the room needs to understand the topic before you start discussing a solution) by asking, “How many people are affected by this bug?” and “what is the effect on those customers?”

The problem isn’t really interesting until everyone understands the true nature of the problem and its impact on customers. When everyone understands, they’re ready to explore solutions. If the bug only affects 1% of clients, and there is a workaround, perhaps everyone can agree it’s not really a severity 1 bug (and therefore doesn’t need to be fixed….QA just needs to edit the bug report).

Translate heavily, and don’t be afraid to say that you need clarification. If Customer Support brings up a topic and you can’t articulate it well enough to help Project Management understand, then ask Customer Support to explain further. Take the time to ensure understanding.

Sometimes, it’s tempting to think you can just answer the question quickly without explaining the problem to everyone in the room. Usually, that’s a mistake. This team needs to be cohesive – they need to find value in each team member, and therefore in each department. Technology companies are big machines, and each part needs to do its job in order for the output (profit) to increase. This team is a microcosm of the organization at large. If you can bring understanding at this level, then collaboration will increase across the entire company. Take the time and help members understand each other.

Many times, you will have team members who aren’t in the room. Be sure to set up a conference call or online meeting and put the information in your recurring meeting invite. That way, when team members are traveling or at home, they can still easily join the meeting.

When the meeting begins, go around the room and have people state their name so that people outside the office know who’s present. Then, do the same for people not in the room. In order to get people comfortable enough to talk openly, they’ve got to know who’s there.

Take notes. The notes should include the list of who attended the meeting, a summary of each discussion and its conclusion, and a table listing action items. These notes should be published internally (ideally on the team intranet/wiki page). It is often more effective to keep all cross-functional team notes in one document, with the most current added at the top. That way, people can easily search if they need to know when a decision was made or who was in the room.

If you can secure a volunteer to take notes, that can be very helpful. Your primary responsibility is to lead the discussion, and it can be distracting to be documenting at the same time. On the other hand, taking notes yourself is a great way to ensure common understanding. Read your summary, and ask if you captured everything. The notes aren’t just an administrative responsibility; they can be an additional tool to increase team cohesion and understanding.

During the meeting, be aware of each member. If you see someone looking like they disagree, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask what’s on their mind. Draw people into the conversation, and ask specific questions to encourage everyone to speak.

When people realize you want to hear from each and every team member and that you’ll help the rest of the team understand, they will get more comfortable. This is especially important when a really difficult issue comes up – if the team trusts each other, they can focus on finding the best solution rather than finger-pointing and focusing on blame.
When topics are discussed that result in action items, clearly document the actions and assign ownership. Put the action items on a whiteboard so the team can see what’s expected. Each week, review the action items and encourage progress toward completion.

As the team comes together more often, these meetings will become the hub of activity for your product. Take the time to prepare, and use the time wisely to pull information from the group.

Stick together through good times and bad...

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.

Here are some team-building ideas to get you thinking:

  • When your product launches, celebrate! The event will vary according to the size of the release and the budget available. Always do something – even if it’s “only” a revision. The idea is to make the team realize you recognize their contribution to the successful launch. It’s a cross-functional team effort, not just about one department.
  • Celebrate team birthdays or major milestones. If someone has a baby, extend congratulations at the next team meeting. Consider the same sort of announcement for engagements, promotions, and other special achievements.
  • When the team members change, take the time to secure a qualified replacement. Help them acclimate to the team by introducing and welcoming them during the next meeting. Also remember to update the team roster and email group.
  • Consider organizing discussion topics to maximize time. If there are items that only need a portion of the group, place that topic at the end of your meeting and let the uninvolved leave before proceeding.

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.

Whenever you can, share revenue information so the team can see the product’s contribution. If you have access to a profitability measure, share that as well. The primary purpose is to share an objective view of how the product is performing.

When you update the product roadmap or personas, consider sharing this information with the team. A team that periodically reviews that information understands the big picture, and reviewing requirements for an individual release becomes easier because the team knows a little more about what’s coming and why.

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”.

Summary

An enlightened cross-functional team is a powerful communication and advocacy mechanism within the organization. Staff it appropriately, provide an environment to help teamwork flourish, and build a team that will propel your product to ever-increasing levels of success.

Focusing on the Cross-Functional Team will lead to products that work better and get built more efficiently.

Looking for help getting your team on the same page? Contact us about hosting a course onsite at your company.

Looking for the latest in product management news, articles, webinars, podcasts and more?