How to coach for cross-functionality



One of the most powerful things for teams and individuals working in Agile ways is to operate cross-functionally. If we look at the words, it means across, through functions. The key point of it is to bring perspective from the outside in. Not operating in silos. Not competing for their own agenda when they in fact all have similar goals. It can even involve external stakeholders, such as consultants, vendors and partners.


Most Agile teams get formed with some level of cross-functionality as far as skill set. Or they should! While a great start, especially contributing to the team’s autonomy in delivering solutions, I’ve always found valuable as a team player to understand the business, the market, the customer, beyond my bubble. As a coach I have always made a point to support teams and individuals to bridge the gap between departments, creating a more interconnected organization.


I know you are an eager early adopter! You already want to start reading about the how! But before you jump into the list of ideas on how to coach for cross-functionality, I suggest you stop and think:


Why? What are the benefits?


The benefits of cross-functionality


Cross-functionality speaks of multidisciplinary views brought together. Which in companies, many times translates into distinct departments and functions. We are literally talking software development, legal, human resources, sales, marketing.


I know you are paying attention, so you are starting to see we are not just talking about your usual developer-tester-analyst combo in software teams. That’s an important combination of roles, but those are still all makers of the product. Cross-functionality expands beyond the development pods or cells. Beyond specific technicalities such as marketing team that only speaks marketing or a product team that only speaks their technology. What happens if we invite people who understand the supply chain, the customer perspective, the lawful constraints, etc.?


A cross-functional team can make and carry decisions that are not just unilateral, aka, from the boss to the team. The team is autonomous and accountable for implementing solutions fully. Now, they can have directions coming from managers, of course, and in an ideal scenario, managers are part of that team. When everybody has skin in the game, everybody is in it to win it. There’s no deflection in case of mistakes or errors.


There is also a lot of range of scope and information in a true cross-functional team. Basically, that team can understand from the customer to operations how the organization works, what really matters, what are the risks and impact of decisions. And because of that they can be really creative and innovative in their solutions. And, hey, luckily, they have the depth of knowledge required to implement them!


Cross functionality, across teams and departments ultimately produces:

  • Higher productivity

  • Better coordination and communication

  • Spanning organizational boundaries

  • Better decision making

  • Better problem-solving

  • Overall reduction on cycle time of delivery


And that is because you create a network of people who can understand the process from inception to post-delivery. Everybody gains language uniformity, because they are not operating in silos and protected by their jargon. You start imagining a network of people almost forming mini-organizations within the organization, united by their mission, which could be a project or a product.


Even if the teams in your organization cannot be fully cross-functional in their formal team structure, a reality for most big companies these days, as a coach you can and should be helping them to achieve more cross-functionality. The hierarchy of jobs is no limitation for individuals and interactions.


Now how can you do that?


How to coach for cross-functionality


Coach on decision-making


There is more than just consensus for reaching collective agreements. Not everything needs to happen this way. You have majority vote. Sometimes it even makes sense that decisions follow a hierarchy or be placed on a single individual. Understand the hierarchy and what lies behind it. And most importantly, help everybody know and accept how decisions are made in the team or decisions that affect the team.


I know this is a tough one to accept, but just imagine: while everybody might be invested in the new functionality for a mobile app, there might be certain legal implications and the one person representing legal in the team can actually veto certain approaches, as this person is who understands best how that would negatively impact the organization. Same for budget decisions.


The point is: the team needs to make decisions collectively, but not necessarily all together in unison in their small little world.


Coach for a common goal, clear vision


Much talked about, I still to this day find teams who don’t understand the vision for their product or project. They do not realize they have a mission or sometimes were not given one! Coaching for a common goal is not something the coach invents, but you can poke around.


For example, is there a leader or manager for the team? Coach that person to craft a mission for the team. A compelling one, not a last-minute-out-ot-a-pocket one.


The team also cannot invent one unless they are founding a new company or initiative by themselves! More often than not, it’s the other way around: teams are put together to solve a problem, invent something. So, coach your teams to be curious and uncompromising in asking the vision, mission, and goal questions because that’s what allows them to be more autonomous and reach out comfortably to other departments and teams as well.


Coach for empathy


The term of the moment is customer-centricity. It’s everywhere! What I’m not so sure is that among that understanding is the compassion and empathy towards the customer. We still distill data and user segments and impersonal aspects about our customers and disguise it as customer-centric. That information about the customer still reaches the team in a dehumanized way.


Coach the teams to not accept those bland and surface-level depictions of the customer. They should have access to talking to customer or at least reaching out to the folks creating the marketing campaigns, the folks in customer service. Only through real connection can you empathize.


And on doing so, coach them to have empathy for their colleagues as well. Like so they will understand the process of other colleagues and will even be able to find commonalities and opportunities for collaboration and improvements across teams.


Coach for collective problem-solving


It is no secret that you get the best ideas based on quantity. If you have 3 ideas or 10, you just have a higher probability of having a jackpot-type of idea in the second case.


Solving problems should never be an act of individual responsibility. Seeking perspective outside of the team even when they think they know the best approach is still highly valuable. I keep remembering an example when a team wanted to work on the performance of a report (technical details omitted!) when in the end what ended up being most important was working on the screen for triggering that report: the customers hated it! And this solution was quicker and more valuable than the performance thing. And it took a customer service representative coming into the refinement session with a team to give everybody some perspective.


So now we just do all that the customer want? No, but we should focus in solving the right problem. Right at that moment what was painful was interacting with the screen. That performance step was eventually improved, but it happened much later, once the order of magnitude of users increased (they reached the hundreds of thousands of users). By then, that became the right problem to solve.


Collective problem solving is about seeking a lot of different views. Being able to describe what you or think and being able to understand and get curious about others doing the same.


Coach for language


Whenever you hear acronyms or interesting words, poke the team to not only demystify those, but ideally create other ways of communicating that same concept. Technical lingo and jargon alienate whoever is not part of the team and makes conversation very hard to follow.


Customers, stakeholders, other teams… they do not belong to the happy club of one team. If everybody speaks in their own internal language, there is then no collective understanding. While it’s possible that certain words and acronyms need to stay in use for industry or other reasons, teach the team to think about the receiver of the message. Peer reviews with colleagues from another department can offer clarity on message. Also, creating and disseminating a Wiktionary on must-have words can be a fun exercise to externalize an isolated language the team uses and invite others in.


Coach for knowledge sharing


Language and jargon are one type of knowledge. But most people don’t know all they know or what they don’t’ know. That’s why encouraging teams to simply find creative ways to share both what they know and hearing from others is key. How?


  • Invite members of other departments to come speak or have Q&A sessions and Conversation Cafes. The team will gain perspective on what others do and know.

  • Do “science fair” meetups to invite other departments to understand the team’s product, process and just understand who they are. They will share perspective on what they know and do.


I’ve worked with in a streaming and podcast technology company that had a team tasked with a research mission in impressions algorithms. The same stuff you imagine YouTube and social media do. For that, they united their brightest developers with a new team member, a data scientist. Can you imagine how big the gap of their knowledge and language? Some were hardcore backend Java developers, the newcomer was a Mathematician. But instead of handing over work to each other, they decided the best way to work together was to speak similar languages and they could only do so by learning each other’s world. They reserved Friday afternoons in front of a whiteboard to share their knowledge on marketing and on data algorithms. The result? Team cohesion and better quality and outcomes.


Coach for otherness


I am biased. I believe we can never have enough perspective. And I find that especially for teams that do not have the habit to look outside, there is this little thing you can start doing as a coach to help them open up to the world outside of the team.


Start asking “who can help?” or “who else can help?”. Those questions imply there is someone out there outside of the team that can contribute to the solution. Often times the initial response is “No one” and then they forget. But if you keep poking just enough, the team eventually starts getting curious and after a while every team work session involves someone from another team or department.


Ready to coach for cross-functionality in your teams?


Coaching for cross-functionality is multifaceted and never-ending. But I believe it’s worthwhile to not only create teams that can deliver stellar results, it also makes the organization more connected, which in turn transforms it into a living entity, capable of learning and doing more than just departments and teams alone could.


Without people working well together, products don’t come to market. Increasing your skills as an Agile team leader will go a long way with your career and service to… yes… people.


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