Program, project, and product managers know all too well the pain of seeing an anticipated rollout come to a screeching halt when unanticipated issues on the scaling, backend, database, or server-side rear their head. Most PMs have pie-in-the-sky goals for future products and services, but realizing desired outcomes requires assembling the right team, a cross-functional team.
In addition to the visionaries and brainstormers, those who can get down to the brass tacks are an integral part of the team, from start to finish. Site reliability engineers, database administrators, architects, DevOps engineers, and other backend custodians, if brought into the conversation early enough, can eliminate many of the hiccups and horror scenarios that plague late-stage projects.
Some PMs feel hesitant to bring database engineers and architects into the conversation early, fearing pushback before an idea gets going. But this too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen concern pales in comparison to the ability to detect potential issues early on before they become significant problems. These stakeholders understand what your systems can handle and what tangible fixes are necessary to make today's ideas tomorrow's reality. Take advantage of that knowledge.
In this article, we discuss who should be on the early dev team, why those people specifically, what they can contribute that others can’t, and how to keep the innovation ball rolling. We end with best practices to make the transition to cross-functional teams as smooth as possible.
Who should be involved in early-stage planning?
Whether you're coming up with the next big product or just looking to resolve an existing pain point, you need all hands on deck. One way to accomplish this is to hold a Vision Review. Cody Smith, Director of Product at BI SaaS platform Domo, defines this as ”a comprehensive look at the entire project to identify customers, pain points, and potential solutions.” Who should be there from the beginning? If the product should fall into their lap at any point on the way to its release, those people should be present. You can keep the design team small, but once they've designed, iterated, gone to the stakeholder for feedback, found a workable solution, and signed off, it's time for the Vision Review.
In this critical phase, invite an engineer and backend developer to join in the cross-functional coordination. Chances are, they know the speed bumps on the road to that first touchpoint better than anyone. And even if they don't, they likely know who needs to be looped into the conversation early on. Getting on the same page means you can work out a plan—from conception to rollout to maintenance—from the beginning.
Other teams often have additional insights into timing. It typically comes down to what resources you need to support the release. According to long-time product manager and current director of e-commerce at Jack Wolfskin, Earth Reiser, you should always look downstream and ask: Who could this project impact and why?
“If you need marketing resources to support a release, you'll need to make sure those teams are informed and available. If there is a financial impact, you'll need to make sure it's accounted for. Will this product impact a customer? If so, make sure your sales and customer success teams are ready and prepared to answer questions and address issues.”
Why is their input important?
Kole Winters, VP of Engineering at Domo, explains that when you bring in quality assurance, system reliability engineering, and other backend managers and architects at this early stage, “they can see potential problems and flag them.” They can identify necessary tasks that others might not have known existed. As the team aligns, the product rollout streamlines. This is when you know that you’ve achieved cross-functional integration.
There's also something to be said for team morale. A top-down system in which teams are prioritized based on their position in the process has downsides. “Because they are not bought in, they are not as invested in the process,” explains Smith. They also have less time to look at the project as it moves through the design and implementation processes.
Given all that, it's easy to see why issues might come up last minute or be overlooked entirely. When certain teams are not bought-in early, they are not as invested in the process. When cross-functional coordination brings all teams into the loop, they start thinking proactively about problems before they arise.
What is often overlooked?
Once everyone is looped in, it's important to stay on the same page. “Don’t assume coordination between the teams will happen,” says Winters. “Naturally, it is easy to get disconnected with other teams, which leads to frustration.” These points will help you stay on track:
- Draft a plan, stick with it, hold regular meetings, and stay coordinated.
- Visual communication tools like product roadmaps can help align teams on a shared vision, while Kanban boards and flowcharts can help maintain Agile planning processes.
- When deliverables begin to come together, check them against quality assurance lists drafted and agreed upon by every team member. If it doesn't meet all the criteria, it doesn't ship.
At any point, but especially in the crucial development review meetings, ask very specific questions. Make sure all the stakeholders and technical people are present when doing so. What are potential issues to watch? What are possible fundamental misses? If things fall through the cracks too often, revisit the goals you set at the beginning of the project to ensure you deliver what each team needs.
See a project's status at a glance. Read our tips and tools for visual project management.
How do you keep innovating?
A common fear among PMs is that once cross-functional integration is in place, all those moving pieces, QA checklists, and coordination among team members might stifle innovation. But big ideas are only as good as their implementability.
Innovation can still exist, and even thrive, within structured windows of time, resources, and other practical measures. Innovative thinking within these bounds can be more efficient because the pie-in-the-sky dreams can be recognized for what they are sooner, and the products that have a chance of working get more time to be fleshed out and fully realized.
Another way to foster innovation is by hiring a diverse workforce. When people of different backgrounds give input on a project, innovation can soar. A 2017 Boston Consulting Group study found that "diverse teams produce 19% more revenue" and "make business decisions up to 87% of the time." The key seems to be more input, not less—more perspectives, not fewer.
And be willing to throw out ideas that just aren't working. It's rare to hit on the right idea the first time. Go back to your teams, retrospect, iterate. “No process is sacred,” explains Winters. “It’s critical to make sure your process gets you where you need to be. Get to the end you want.”
3 tips for cross-functional collaboration
Have clear goals
When you are drawing on the multitude of resources needed for a major release, it's important to communicate the goal and what success looks like for each department supporting the release or project. “Everyone needs to understand the part they play,” says Reiser.
Understand that only rarely can a product rollout be both timely and of superior quality. Trade-offs may be necessary. There might be big personalities in your business, but it's necessary to “hash it out until you have a viable way forward,” as Smith puts it.
If someone says the proposed product or service isn't feasible, ask if more time would fix it. If it's not more time, is it a matter of hiring more people? Would it be feasible if you sacrificed some of the bells and whistles? Most importantly, remember that the people building the products or supporting the release are just as important at the release itself. As Reiser explains, “A target date is almost always arbitrary—humans are not.”
Trust the teams you have
And value their word when it comes to their area of expertise. Strong working relationships are built on open communication. It's best to err on the side of overcommunication. Smith explains that “The more confidence we instill with leadership, the less they’ll want their hands on every little thing every time.” Good communication means both listening and setting expectations and expecting them to do the same to you. That's the bedrock of cross-functional coordination.
One thing is critical—bring design in at the beginning and all along the way. The trio—engineering, product engineering, and design—should be in the loop at every stage. Doing so will help you achieve a seamless development cycle.
See what additional steps you can take to improve internal communication throughout your company.