Categories: , agile, agility, business agility, collaboration, digital transformation, leadership, sense & respond, team leadership, teams
I used to live in the suburbs next to a guy named Jim. Jim spent a LOT of time outside in his yard with loud, gasoline-powered equipment and tools. His favorite tool, and the loudest coincidentally, was his leaf-blower. And while he did have a stellar looking yard, the noise that emanated from said leaf-blower on a daily basis—multiple times a day—conflicted with my work-from-home conference call schedule. Often.
Any sane person would immediately assume that the level of attention Jim paid to his yard was excessive. And they’d be right. But I lived next to him for 10 years and over that time developed a different understanding of Jim’s perspective.
Jim had an angled driveway that connected directly to his garage and house. Rainwater and snow-melt would flow down the driveway towards the garage and into a grate. If that grate clogged with leaves, branches and twigs that fell from the big trees around our houses, Jim would get water in his basement. This was the main driver of his leaf-blower obsession.
Jim would regularly show me how much debris he’d cleared each day and note that once again his basement would stay dry. By experiencing this situation together with my neighbor I was able to learn, quickly, why he was behaving in this particular way. This experience formed the basis of our shared understanding. Because we had done something together, at the same time we had a clear understanding of what happened, who it happened to and what drove the action. The only thing we had left to decide was what to do about it. (Spoiler: better headphones for me did the trick.)
Shared Understanding And Cross-Functional Teams
To increase the agility of our organizations we also need to build a team structure that builds shared understanding. In the old linear world, waterfall processes worked well. One discipline did their work, handed it off to the next discipline in line and repeated the process. Efficiency was the goal and the time to production of the final product—well defined and well-understood—was the measure of success.
The model that replaces discipline-based silos in today’s uncertainty-filled contexts is the cross-functional team. These teams are made up of individuals with the skillsets necessary to deliver an entire product from beginning to end. They work together on the same project or initiative at the same time. They discuss their work together on a daily basis and adjust their approach based on input from everyone on the team.
Cross-functional teams reduce the cycle time of learning, so teams can better understand whether their product is truly delivering value. The faster a team learns, the more agility it exhibits. Working together in short cycles (called “sprints” in the Agile world) builds shared understanding. Shared understanding—like the kind Jim and I had because we were neighbors —is the currency of an agile team. When something happens,the team doesn’t have to waste time explaining to each other what happened. They were there. They experienced it first hand together. Instead, the team can move to a far more productive conversation: “What are we going to do about it?”
Leaders who can help teams build shared understanding save time, money and effort and lead to an improved quality of their product or service. But leading cross-functional teams to achieve as much shared understanding as possible has its own challenges. Here are three challenges to consider as you work towards managing and increasing the agility of your organization.
The team leader doesn’t have the same technical or domain expertise as the rest of the team
If you’re in charge of a cross-functional team odds are you rose to that role through a specific discipline. Maybe you were a software engineer or a business analyst. You were probably very good at that job but you’re certainly not an expert on how every other discipline should do their job. One of the things we teach in our courses is to set clear goals and guidelines for the team. Then get out of their way. Trust the team to do their best work. If you don’t understand how they do their work consider running a series of discovery interviews— something we also cover in our online and in-person courses. Ask them questions like, “How do you make decisions?”, “What constraints do you have on your work?” and let them explain their process and decisions.
Aligning the team to priorities and building consensus can prove difficult
If you were to ask a cross-functional team what the most important thing they needed to do next was, you would get as many answers as there were disciplines seated at the table. All of them are right but which one is the number one priority? In this frequent situation it’s your job as the team lead to determine which priorities are currently critical to the success of the initiative. You probably don’t know either. In high-uncertainty contexts, this is normal! So what should you do? We teach the teams we work with to frame their work as testable hypotheses. This allows the entire team to express which features they believe they should move forward and how they will know it was the right decision. Teams test their hypotheses to determine which thing, if we don’t do it right now, causes the biggest risk to the project. That’s the one the team should work on next. It doesn’t mean the other ideas are wrong. It just means that you are going to defer work on those items until these higher risk issues are solved.
How do we keep everyone “busy” throughout the entire initiative?
Throughout a project’s lifecycle certain disciplines will be busier than others at various times. In the early stages design and product management do a lot of work while during the middle the engineers pick up the bulk of the work. What do the less-busy disciplines do during those times? Since we don’t want to break the team apart and move less busy people to other projects for fear of breaking the shared understanding the team has created we need to learn what other skills these folks bring to the table. Can they talk to customers? Can they do QA or UAT testing? Can they build a presentation to educate other departments about the upcoming changes the team is building? In addition, these same folks can likely continue doing their core work. Not everything fits into a sprint and so there is almost always something for designers, writers, business analysts and project managers to do. As Josh recently wrote on his blog, “Agile teams should be doing all of these things continuously, in every sprint. You want to be researching continuously. Designing continuously. Building continuously.”
Shared understanding is the key to agility
Agility is a goal all companies should strive to achieve. Your choice of how to staff and lead teams will impact this goal significantly. The more cross-functional your teams can be, the more shared understanding they will gain, the more agility the teams will exhibit. Nevertheless, this staffing model isn’t free. It has its own challenges that, as a strong team leader, you can overcome with some training, some improvisation, some humility, and some creativity.
We’re working closely with PMI to build offerings that teach shared understanding, collaboration and agility and we’d love to hear from you. What have you seen work well on cross-functional teams? What has been challenging in making them work? Who have you seen do this well? Reply in the comments and let’s build a list of best practices.
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