Taking the “dysfunction” out of cross-functional teams

Cross-group collaboration is one of the most critical aspects of successful product development. The average engineer spends about 15-30 percent of his or her time working with non-engineers every week, extrapolating from a ReadWrite report.

Last year, a study from the Harvard Business Review actually said that 75 percent of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional.

As part of our Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) engineering meet-up series, I had the opportunity to host a panel of leaders of various functions at top tech companies to discuss best practices in cross-group teamwork and collaboration — Jessica Verrilli, director of corporate development at Twitter; Eugene Wei, head of video at Oculus and previously head of product at Flipboard and Hulu; and Wendy Owen, product design lead for the Facebook ads platform.

Below are some of the key takeaways from our discussion in the most recent episode of KPCB’s Ventured podcast.

Know how roles differ: product management versus engineering versus design

The role of the engineer is likely the easiest to understand, as that person produces a clear, measurable output: code. Conversely, product manager roles are often the hardest to understand, as their output can vary greatly from project to project, as well as company to company.

At the highest level, product managers define what problems to solve on behalf of their end-customers. That means coming up with a hypothesis, pushing forward with an approach to that hypothesis, collaborating with teams to create a solution and assessing the results that come out on the other side. Product managers ask these questions: What problem is the right problem to solve? And have we solved the problem for our customers?

One area of potential tension between product and engineering is that engineering problems often have a more deterministic outcome, meaning that engineering problems are more likely to produce the same output from a given starting point. Product management, however, is part art, part science, and there isn’t necessarily a guaranteed path to success on a project, Eugene said. It’s important to understand that iteration is a necessary and important part of good product management.

Designers come in many forms, though most traditionally have three different distinct skill sets: visual design, interaction design and product design. If product managers define what problem to solve, designers define what the solution should be and why. In a healthy organization, designers are asked to participate in every stage of the product cycle, from the “what” and the “why,” down to the “how,” in close collaboration with the engineering and product manager leaders, said Wendy.

Understanding that different groups in design, product or engineering have different approaches and philosophies can help teams achieve successful outcomes more collaboratively.

Define what success looks like up front

Making sure everyone is solving for the same problem gives a sense of direction and allows a collection of individuals to turn into a team. A clear definition of success upfront makes agreeing to the approach of how to solve the problem an easier task. According to Wendy, when engineering, design and product can participate in that process together from the beginning — designing a clear picture of the customer problem — it leads to the best outcome in the end.

Build trust among teams

There are three ways to build trust among teams, Jessica said. First, set as much context as possible so people understand your motives. Secondly, let information flow freely. As soon as people feel they’ve shared information with you but fear that you might not be sharing that information up the chain, then information is back-channelled and trust breaks down.

To avoid that, create a document that will be presented to the executives, summarizing everyone’s work and concerns, and make sure every person on the project sees it. Lastly, convene fair discussions. These decisions can be very contentious. Discussions where people feel their voices are heard will help team members trust the process and result in good outcomes.

How to give feedback

Jessica recommends when giving feedback to always start with one thing that’s positive. Then be super direct about what isn’t working for you in the design and, if you can, frame it as a problem. Offer what you see as the problem and then invite them to help you solve it and don’t be afraid to put your own ideas in the mix. Product development is all about trying to surface the best ideas from everyone, then testing and vetting a hypothesis through a great launch process.

Henry Ford once said: “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” Hopefully there is advice here that can help your teams work together more effectively across organizations and achieve great successes (or at least avoid dysfunction!).