The Benefits of a Cross-Functional Product Team

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November 15, 2021

The Benefits of a Cross-Functional Product Team

by Brian de Haaff

A never-ending game of telephone. This is how someone described building products at their company to me. Project managers were frantically asking for updates from various teams so that they could message out status and timelines. But these folks did not really know what was being built and certainly did not understand the details of the work. So the stream of questions from stakeholders passed back and forth ad nauseam — burning precious time and, eventually, the team’s motivation.

Product development is some of the most exciting work there is. Which is why it makes me sad to hear about teams sputtering out.

Recently I wrote a blog about what I consider to be the secret behind winning products. It is not a brilliant roadmap or even a specific role — the secret is the cross-functional team who support every aspect of the Complete Product Experience (CPE). When these folks feel like they understand their role in making the product successful, have accountability for fulfilling that role, and are excited to win together, well... no more telephone.

But I also shared in that post that many companies do not have formal product teams in place. They do not even have the concept of a product team. Each group works as a silo. This part resonated with some of you. I received notes about real struggles taking place in siloed set-ups, such as perception management and an unwillingness to walk away from bad ideas. Most people described:

  • Duplicate processes and tasks

  • Teams not accepting solutions that others propose

  • Not thinking about how one group’s actions impact the whole

  • Stakeholders unaware of progress and teammates not clear on the details

  • Getting anything done takes forever

Many companies fall into one if not several of these traps — which leads to products that no one actually wants. And this is the most painful part of it all. You end up with groups finger-pointing and feeling like failures when they could have been working together to build something valuable.

Advocating and making the case for a formal product team might seem like a hurdle — but challenging the status quo always is.

If you are in a position to advocate for a new cross-functional product team structure then you will need clear points that you can reference when suggesting it to the leadership team. And you will also need to share those with the people who will be impacted by the change — the product team. Typically these are representatives from core functional groups including engineering, marketing, sales, and support.

But even if you are not able to effect change in your role, understanding the benefits of a product team can help you influence those who are. I see these six areas as the most impactful reasons to create formal product teams:

Strategy alignment

Delays happen when people are not clear on what is a priority. Work starts and stops in spurts. You want to be able to prioritize what is most important and will lead to actual value creation for the company and for customers. Product team members become ambassadors of strategy, championing alignment together and in their functional groups.

Customer focus

Self-interest is human nature. Product teams are organized around a specific customer need or value stream — not individual projects. This outward look has a few benefits. And when issues arise you can orient people back to that common objective and away from rivalism or competing interests.

Innovation opportunity

Breakthrough ideas are rarely the result of one individual. Innovation requires intention, both in terms of inputs and processes, to get the desired output. Bringing together people from different disciplines for focused ideation against clear goals can lead to more integrated and creative concepts.

Iteration speed

Different groups have different priorities. And there are always many efforts happening in parallel across an organization. Product teams have a shared purpose — which makes it easier to resolve bottlenecks or pivot in response to new information. Plus you can identify resources or needed skill-sets faster when you have open communication with the right groups.

Problem solving

People with different skill sets can offer solutions you might never have considered. It is true that no one wants to sit through part of a meeting that is not directly related to their work. But there is value in all groups hearing the same message and having a forum for discussion. The group can work together to address both customer and internal challenges.

Job satisfaction

There is real happiness working with and learning as a team. If you are a product person, then you get to work across the company. For groups with less visibility being part of a formal product team creates more investment in and excitement for what you are building together. That joy should not be overlooked.

The incentive of different functional groups working together is a collective success — for the company, for customers, and for each other.

Of course I am not naive. The team is not the only thing that matters. You need strategy as the backbone of your product development work. And you need tools that enable you to align that work with goals, prioritize what matters most, and collaborate seamlessly. There will be other practical considerations too, many of which you can manage by documenting roles and responsibilities.

Just remember: We all want to build products that customers love. Buy-in for formal product teams comes when everyone can see a better path forward.

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Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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