Product Management Skills: Cross Functional Collaboration

We’ve talked about cross functional collaboration a lot on this blog, but only ever in passing. It’s such an integral part of a Product Manager’s job description, that it’s just kind of a given that everyone knows what it means and how to do it well.

But it’s not just newbies who can benefit from re-examining our understanding of cross functional collaboration. In 2015 it was discovered by Harvard Business Review that 75% of cross functional teams were dysfunctional. Unless things have dramatically changed in the last 6 years, we’ve clearly got to re-open the conversation about how we work together. Especially since the workplace has shifted to a remote setting.

So let’s unpack some of the benefits and challenges of cross functional teams. Stick around till the end and we’ll be recommending some of our favorite online collaboration tools.

What Do Cross Functional Teams Look Like in Product Development?

Cross functional collaboration is one of the most exciting parts about working in product. It’s not without its challenges, which we’ll get into shortly, but it exposes everyone involved to everything involved in developing and launching a product. Engineers get the opportunity to learn more about UX design, and UX designers get the chance to learn more about marketing.

Check out this great talk on the Product Manager and Cross-Functional Teams: Subscribe to our YouTube channel to get talks like this any time you want!

Common Collaboration Pitfalls (And How to Avoid Them)

Anything that comes with great benefits also comes with challenges. After all, nothing worth doing was ever easy! Luckily, these problems have some very simple solutions…

Unengaged Employees

Employee engagement can ebb and flow. We’re all human, and sometimes work can shift to the back burner when the rest of our lives take over. There are a milieu of reasons why an employee/every employee at once can feel the slump. Sometimes it’s natural (winter time, after a big change, during exceptionally busy and stressful periods) and sometimes there’s a root cause that you can work on fixing.

Many of the reasons why employees become disengaged will be out of your power as a Product Manager, even as a Director of Product! But there are some things you can do is repeated low employee engagement becomes a problem.

  1. Hire the right people. This might be a case of ‘too little too late’, but this is why it’s so important to hire the right people. At some point in your career you’re sure to find times when you just need someone to come in right now! But if you have the luxury of time, waiting to hire someone with a passion for your mission and the right attitude rather than just the right skills will pay for itself tenfold.
  2. Make sure performance reviews go two-ways. If you’re involved in performance reviews, or have some kind of one-on-one with an unengaged team member, make sure they know that you value their feedback
  3. Don’t shy away from uncomfortable conversations. Many people who have been going through a hard time cite the moment their manager said to them ‘you’re not happy here, are you?’ as a real turning point for them.
  4. Try not to demonize. You have no idea what’s going on under the surface of someone’s life. And although it’s tempting to view that one person who sucks the energy out of the room as The Worst, they were hired for a reason. Even if you can’t fix the source of their discontent, it’s not a sin to hate your job.

Maybe your company just happens to be a revolving door, and that’s down to a core problem that’s way above your pay grade to fix!

Working in silos

It’s 2021 — we don’t have to tell you that working in silos is a problem! It’s one of the most well known of all collaboration challenges. When you’ve got teams working towards the same goal, but with their own goals and objectives in mind.

This problem also speaks to the importance of the product vision, and having total alignment across the board on what that vision looks like. Even if one team diverges off of the path, if they’re at least driving in the same direction as the other teams involved course correction will be much easier.

One solution to break down silos is to make your all-hands meetings more meaningful. Don’t just let people rattle off a list of what they’ve been up to and what’s coming up. We all know how easy it is to tune that out!

Have the tech team do demonstrations for the rest of the team before a new feature is launched, or even bring them into the beta testing process. When the marketing team runs a new survey, have the other teams take it and ask for their feedback.

Try to find new ways to foster understanding between teams. It might be as easy as giving them opportunities to chat.

Favoritism

Now, you might be sitting there shaking your head and saying ‘Favoritism?! What does that have to do with anything? This is product, not pre-school!’ And you’d be absolutely right.

But if you look deep into your soul, you know deep down that favoritism within businesses can be very real, but it’s a very taboo topic that no one likes to talk about. Perhaps you’ve been subjected to a boss that vastly preferred one team over another. It could have been in a way that was subtle, or it could have seriously affected your work (skewed resource allocation or compensation).

Equally dangerous is perceived favoritism — even if it isn’t real. Part of being a Product Manager is working with all teams and guiding them towards a common goal. Depending on the needs of the product in any given moment, you might find yourself having to spend more time with the tech team, or the marketing team, or with other Product Managers.

This can lead to resentment within your development team. The problem might not be coming from you, it could be coming from higher management. It could be that the product you’re working on isn’t being given a fair shot compared to other products within the company.

The solution to both favoritism and perceived favoritism is shockingly simple: clear communication. When you’re transparent with your activities and the motivation behind those activities, you’re helping to discourage speculation about why you’re spending an extra hour a week with marketing or why you had to cancel that weekly meeting with the sales team.

If the problem comes from higher management, you need to communicate to your teams that it’s not personal, it’s business. When we dedicate 9+ hours a day to our work, it’s easy for emotions to be heightened. When our bosses dismiss our hard work in favor of someone else’s…it doesn’t exactly grease the wheels of cross functional collaboration.

Team leaders need to temper these feelings by having open and honest communication, and creating safe spaces where people feel they can talk about the issues they perceive. When your teammates feel like you’re on all of their sides, it makes leading them that much easier.

The 3 Soft Skills Product Managers Need to Facilitate Cross Functional Collaboration

Self-awareness: You need to examine your own biases and ask yourself if you’re truly being fair to everyone in your team. If you’re more communicative with the people you happen to get along with better, that’s natural. But being a fair and impartial leader means giving yourself to teams depending on their needs rather than your preferences.

Empathy: If we had a penny for every time we said/heard that Product Managers need empathy, we’d be able to buy out Jeff Bezos. But that’s because it’s so true. Understanding people’s challenges and needs and being able to help them solve their problems goes a long way in facilitating collaboration.

Stability: We talked about this in our guide to the skills all Product Managers need in 2021. There are a lot of moving parts in product development, and you need to be at the centre of the wheel, making sure it has what it needs to turn. When the wheel wobbles, the whole cart wobbles! It’s a lot of responsibility, but letting people know what they can expect from you and how much they can rely on you right off the bat is a good start.

Check out Google PM, Isha Sheth’s, take on how to create a culture of collaboration:

Top 3 Collaboration Tools for Cross Functional Teams

Collaboration tools have always been a staple of Product Management, and even more so in a remote setting. Luckily, recent years have given us the best possible tools to work with each other seamlessly, no matter which teams we are in.

There is a whole host of tools for product teams out there, but to keep things simple, we’ve whittled the list down to our top three ‘must-haves’ if you’re looking for something new to boost cross functional collaboration efforts. We chose these three because of their user-friendly interfaces, and their availability for all levels and skill sets.

  1. Miro: Miro needs no introduction by now. When you can’t be in the same room as your teams to brainstorm or use a whiteboard, Miro is the next best thing. In some cases, it’s even better! Work together in real time, with a huge library of plug-in-and-play templates.
  2. Figma:Design is a tricky concept for non-designers to wrap their heads around. Figma is user-friendly for all levels, making cross functional collaboration on design that much smoother. Make innovative ideas simple and easily translatable.
  3. Chartio: Chartio’s mission to democratize data and make it accessible and available to all professionals makes it the perfect choice for cross functional teams. Their visualizations make your data understandable for everyone in the team, not just your data scientists.

I’m Carlos González, CEO at Product School, and I enjoy sharing weekly tips for Product leaders!

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This article was also published on The Product Management Blog.

CEO at Product School — Global leader in product management training

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