Cross-functional teams are not a new concept. The idea of groups of employees working together from different functions within a business – for example Sales, Account Management, Marketing and Finance – has been pioneered particularly by startups to tackle organisational goals.
Traditionally, however, this approach hasn’t been favoured by large tech organisations. Typically, these businesses have structured their teams around shared skillsets – such as development, testing or infrastructure teams.
What we’re beginning to see more of are tech companies shaping their teams with a fresh model in mind – one that focuses on agility and a mixture of skills, all the while with members working towards a shared goal. Technical cross-functional teams can see members such as Developers, Testers, DevOps Engineers, UX Designers and Product Owners all collaborating on projects with a greater level of synergy, communication and a clearly defined common goal.
We spoke to Ben Hutton, Managing Director of one of our Edinburgh-based clients xDesign, about how and why they chose to implement cross-functional teams in their business.
Why cross-functional teams?
“It goes hand in hand with moving to a more agile method,” says Ben. “We needed to do a version of agile that allowed us to do the great things about it, to deliver value more, and that was really the drive.”
As the projects that xDesign were winning were getting bigger, they needed to deliver things in a more ‘agile’ fashion. “We were moving away from just delivering and developing what was on the page, further up the chain to solve the problems behind the brief, and that facilitated a need to change the structure that we had,” says Ben.
What are the defined roles within a technical cross-functional team?
As Ben explains, many of the roles within the team are traditional ‘agile’ roles.
“The product owner for us often straddles that role of half BA [Business Analyst], half translator. They’re the person that is responsible for the vision of the product. Often that’s a job about translating the vision, pushing past the wants of the clients into the needs of the client and then into the users… and balancing those to eventually turn into user stories.
“In the same vein, our designers do more than just the ‘pretty pictures’ element,” Ben continues. “There’s a big push at the moment for user-centered design, and that’s absolutely right because it’s massively important, but there are ways where you can end up making things 1% better for the user, but ten times harder to build – and so our designers are very well versed in the patterns and frameworks that will make things more easily implementable. Which is why they are also often responsible for building our information architecture.
“That lets them really understand the user experience because they’ve not just looked at their slice of it – they understand the ramifications of what’s going in and what’s coming out.”
Ben also explains the decision to integrate QA into the Engineering team:
“We have two types of engineers essentially: we have software engineers – and they might be mobile or web or front end or back end or full stack or any one of those specialties – but our other part of the engineering is the QA. They are part of the engineering team and I think that’s often a misunderstood role.
“The reason our QA are QA engineers is that, yes they do regression testing and they work through it as a user and make sure that it does what it was meant to do, but they’re also responsible for developing tests and coming into discovery sessions and making suggestions to make a better quality product.”
Joining up with the client
Equally, the type of end client also factors into how the cross-functional team will operate. As a business that works with multiple clients of varying sizes and different software requirements, xDesign must adapt to these different clients’ ways of working.
Ben categorises the people they work with as falling into broadly three categories:
“They’re either a technical person, interested in engineering; or they’re a product person, and they’re interested in product and utilisation; or they’re a business person who’s interested in the end result. And each of them all require something different.”
Knowing the needs of the client and their priorities is vital to the success of the project – by implementing a cross-functional team to execute the project, with a blend of different skillsets and working styles, the team is able to pivot towards their client’s requirements and deliver the project in a way that works best for them.
Cross-collaboration from a diverse range of employees from different areas of an organisation can bring about great results, from how projects are broken down, planned and ultimately delivered. Businesses that work in agile environments can often see great success by equipping team members with a full understanding of the workload and roles of their peers, allowing for less conflict and stronger relationships being forged.
To find out more about implementing cross-functional teams into your business, get in touch with us.