Welcome to Answer Me This EP03, this week, I spoke with a PhD candidate from RMIT University. Her research topic is cross functional collaboration. She asked some good questions—read on for my answers!
What is the best way for teams to work cross functionally?
Well many people would rely on Scrum for that, but I see this often being a problematic approach, because Scrum tends to get interpreted as a prescriptive process that describes in detail exactly who will do what, when, and how. It is often talked about as an agile way of working, yet most teams tend to implement it in a way that doesn’t jibe at all with first principles of agile. Instead of recommending Scrum, I believe that organisations who want to improve how they collaborate should look to define their own system of work. It doesn’t need to be perfect. You can start by bringing together a group of people from different disciplines, understand each other’s goals, and co-design some simple ways to start working and collaborating more. From there, it’s about communication and continuous improvement. It’s fine to beg, borrow, and steal from other approaches—and you may well find parts of Scrum are a decent place to start—but you need to know that every organisation has a different culture with a unique set of constraints—so copying the process at Spotify or Amazon probably won’t work in your organisation. Start somewhere and try, learn as you go, keep adapting and improving until you’re satisfied that collaboration is humming.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about working cross-functionally?
I believe that collaboration is far more about people and how they think, not the process used to get the work done.
Let me explain with some stereotypes. When I think about many of the engineers I’ve worked with, they value a well framed problem, followed by focussed time to explore and solve it. They’re some of the brightest minds I get to work with, yet often very comfortable communicators—especially in a group environment. Now look at marketers or product leaders. These are people who tend to have presence and gravitas. They command the room, empowered and confident to say what they think (even when it’s complete tripe!). Many are highly-tuned System 1 thinkers, who can make decisions at speed to keep things moving.
In collaborative working environments, it’s easy to see how this tension causes pain. And this is just one example. There’s no process in any playbook that will help you handle these situations. It’s got to do with how people think (mindset), and who they are (the whole person).
With that in mind, the most powerful and valuable tool I have for collaboration is relationships. I make it my business to know people—even if in some small, and seemingly insignificant way—before we work on stuff. I self-identify as a ‘slow burner’. It takes a little bit of time and some deliberate action (for me at least) to start building a working relationship with collaborators. But it’s worth the effort, because always these are the collaborations that produce the best outcomes. It’s also where that fizzy feeling comes from, when you’re doing great work with good people. I like that feeling!