Friday, January 11, 2013

Better cross-functional collaboration, trust and communication
by Ron Lichty

Coming soon: 2013 results:
what makes product teams great?
In 2012's Study of Product Team Performance, respondents were asked what they would change about the core product team.

"Better cross-functional collaboration, trust and communication" was their number-one response.

I was struck by how closely that aspiration aligns with a step that management took 15 years ago when I was at Schwab, a step I was convinced was responsible for my team becoming one of the highest performing I've had opportunity to manage.

The time was February 1997. The team was embarking on building Schwab's first web-based customer applications in Java. At the beginning of 1997, Java was mostly being used for eye candy: animated thermometers, dancing fonts, blinking messages, that sort of thing. Java applets didn't even print. Not that there were a lot of alternatives: HTML was flat and lifeless; Javascript wasn't yet built into a single browser; the only alternative was COM, also very early as a platform. To build business applications in Java at the beginning of 1997 was not just leading edge, it was bleeding edge.

To support the effort, senior management hired a team-building h.r. group - they go by names like "organizational development" - "OD" - but they're all about building collaboration, trust and communication - soft skills - emotional intelligence - that sort of thing.

As keyed up as management was to prove to the execs that we could do something new, something breathtaking, something never done before - they arranged for the entire product team to take entire afternoons offsite multiple times during our short four-month development cycle. Developers, testers, project managers, product managers, business analysts, architects, instructional designers, the whole bunch of us.

That project progressed from research and ideas to working product - an asset allocation toolkit - with functionality that had never before been built even in the client-server world - in a few short months. The team won awards; the product was lauded; Schwab was lionized.

At the time, I remember thinking that I never wanted to work on a product team again that did not undertake significant cross-functional trust and collaboration team-building. I recounted the experience in our book, Managing the Unmanageable: Rules, Tools, and Insights for Managing Software People and Teams. Sadly, I've never worked on one since that did.

The 2012 study reminded me of what gave that Schwab team greatness. The study examined the interactions of Product Managers, Project Managers, Program Managers, Business Analysts, Developers and others actively involved in product development projects.  "The goal of our research was to better understand the dynamics of product team performance and to uncover the practices that make these teams successful. What makes this survey unique is that it enjoys the support of various industry associations and market players — groups and individuals that don't generally work together."


At 4:17 AM, January 02, 2017, Blogger Unknown said...

It is quite clear that, "people from different disciplines" is nothing but the cross functional teams as advocated by some of the Agile methods.
Human Resource Consultant in Hosur

At 11:43 AM, January 02, 2017, Blogger Ron Lichty said...

Suresh, I'm a fan of and advocate for agile teams, in part for just that reason. Agile teams help. Thank you for pointing that out!

But in an enterprise setting, as Schwab was, the people from different disciplines required to bring up early Web interactivity included so many people from so many disparate parts of the company stepping so far outside their comfort zones... Our larger project team had not only client and server folks and people devising protocols for the communication between them, but also middleware, mainframe, security, networking, front-end database, back-end database, business logic, ... - a score or more people spread across downtown San Francisco! While '96 was early for agile, we probably could have shoehorned client and server and test and a product owner into an agile team of 7-plus-or-minus-2. But not the rest.

And even if we'd have been few enough to have reorganized as an agile team, the O.D. effort I saw add magic would likely have contributed. Just forming into a cross-functional team, ... Just forming into an agile team... Developing the trust inherent in a high-performance team...

I saw the O.D.-led offsites breathing teamness into our team in a way that would benefit most agile teams, as well.


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