Product and Tech
Having cross-functional teams that work is an essential characteristic of a modern product organization. But it requires more than just the structure of teams, it requires working with intention. And the results speak for themselves.
About the author: Jakob Klapwijk is a Tech Lead in the Presentation Experience (PX) Team and a Line Manager at Mentimeter.
Product development is a complicated business. It isn’t a step-by-step process that moves smoothly from design to development to shipping. There is no easy pipeline between crafts. The work of building a product like Mentimeter has to be an ongoing collaboration where we work across disciplines to constantly iterate until a feature is ready to ship.
Like many product organizations, our teams are organized cross-functionally, so we incorporate a varied set of crafts under one umbrella. We work intentionally in this way. Knowing that many product organizations work in this way in name only, while in practice much of the work is still very siloed and collaboration does not flourish. We actively nurture cross-functional practices to ensure that we don’t work in the traditional pipelined way.
Fundamentally, we work in this way because we think it enables us to build a better product. To work quicker in the long run, with fewer last-minute changes or late revelations that mean we have to go several steps back. We believe that people don’t want to just clear tasks on Trello or Jira and not consider the bigger picture. Most people want to think bigger than that, want the challenge, want to know that their work is contributing to some larger project.
The people who work here at Mentimeter don’t want to work in isolation, being given a series of tasks to complete. The thrill is in working with people from other disciplines, in learning from the different perspectives of other team members, and growing professionally as a result. And it’s just more rewarding! Working this way you don’t just write lines of code, you build a product.
If we didn't do this we know - in the long run - it will take longer to get the product to the level you get to quicker with cross-functional teams. While it can sometimes feel like frequently incorporating the perspectives of different stakeholders means more blockers, it also means the product you do ship will be of a higher quality and more stable the first time around. Not working in this way means you’re more likely to ship a sub-par product because you have already sunk so much time into it. You just give up and ship it because you can’t bare to go back to square one. Working cross-functionally reduces the chances of this happening.
When it comes to cross-functional teams, there are many product organizations that talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. Just grouping people from different disciplines into the same team and hoping that will result in them working cross-functionally isn’t enough. Getting people from different crafts to work collaboratively takes effort and real intention.
It is easy to say “Yes, our product department works cross-functionally”, but actually doing it is something else. Sometimes it takes small acts or changes in habit. For example, in my team I encourage everyone to write in public channels rather than direct messages in Slack. This is a relatively small change, but it means that a question that might be relevant for everyone is viewable by everyone. The question could be relevant to everyone in the team - regardless of function - so it is worth posting it in a public channel.
But making cross-functionality actually work can also involve more significant actions. For example, while some tech organizations have been happy to pivot to a much more remote way of working, at Mentimeter we have always placed great emphasis on being present in the office. For the people who work here that is the preferred way of working, we strive to make the office a great place to be, and we believe that it helps us to build a better product when we can work together in the same physical space.
While, of course, it is possible to work in cross-functional teams effectively when the whole team is working remotely, it requires much more work and conscious intention to make it happen. It happens much more naturally when you just have to turn to the person next to you to ask a question or to ask for help.