When you’re looking for a team to build your new product, there are many things you take into consideration.
Do they work in state-of-the-art technologies? What do previous clients say about them? What are the methodologies they use? How do they make an estimate and charge for a project?
These are important questions, but there’s one more thing to keep in mind. Are they using cross-functional teams for digital product development? And if they are - how do they manage those teams?
Cross-functional teams originate in agile software development. They allow people with various expertise to work on a project as one unit. Cross-functionality is an alternative to the “silo mentality” that arises as a result of people working in specialized, isolated departments.
When it comes to digital product development, cross-functional teams can be particularly efficient. At UIG Studio, we’ve been implementing this model for years. In this article, we’ll explain how we make it work - and how you can benefit from cross-functional teams as the product owner.
Let’s begin with the most basic question:
What is a cross-functional team in app development?
A cross-functional team is a group of people with different functional expertise working together on a common goal. In digital product development, this means building an app through joined efforts and expertise of:
And others, depending on a project.
The product owner is also involved in the process - even if they aren’t formally a team member. However, the way in which cross-functional teams operate makes the contribution of the owner invaluable - and often, simply necessary.
Members of a cross-functional team may not even have formal job titles like those listed above. They can work across a few different fields, with one or two being their domains. That’s why you may sometimes see job postings calling for a “ninja” or “unicorn” to join a cross-functional team. This means that the company is looking for someone with not just the right skillset - but primarily, with the right attitude for working cross-functionally.
Because here’s the thing: the biggest strength of a cross-functional team is not simply the expertise members bring to the table. It’s also about how people interact with each other. If the workflow is managed correctly, cross-functional teams can tap into superpowers that few other teams have.
In this way, a cross-functional team is greater than the sum of its parts. It doesn’t just combine various skills. It also ensures that all people involved are accountable to one another and keep each other’s negative tendencies in check.
So what exactly are the practical benefits cross-functional teams bring into digital product development?
Benefits of cross-functional teams in digital product development
Turning an abstract idea into a solid product is a complex and fragile task. It all usually starts with identifying a problem users have. Then, the question is: how to deliver the best possible solution while also generating business profit?
This is almost never an easy question to answer. There are so many possible false routes. That’s precisely what cross-functional teams are great for avoiding those routes and arriving at the best solution possible, given the business context and the resources.
At UIG Studio, we’ve seen many times how cross-functional teams unlocked ideas and generated solutions that wouldn’t happen otherwise. Here’s a handful of the main ways in which cross-functional teams benefit product development:
Cost efficiency. This one is a no-brainer. When people work across disciplines, the overall number of team members required to complete a project shrinks. This means that cross-functional teams can be relatively small, meaning fewer salaries to pay for the product owner.
Non-linear approach to app development. When specialized teams work in separation, product development needs to happen through linear milestones. With digital products, where many aspects of the project are interdependent, this doesn’t always make sense. Cross-functional teams allow for the progress to happen in many areas simultaneously. For example, writing the code can go hand-in-hand with marketing the early version of the app.
Enhanced learning. It’s often said that product development is not so much about building the product itself, but about the learning that occurs on the way. This benefits your business because it allows you to dig deeper into what your customers want. In cross-functional teams, knowledge about the product is shared widely. This means that everyone on the team has a good idea of what’s going on in the big picture. It also increases the “bus factor” - the number of people who would need to be hit by a bus for the key knowledge about the project to disappear.
Avoiding waste. Building any digital product always involves a risk of going down a dead-end street and investing in the wrong ideas. Cross-functional teams minimize this risk. For example, when a software engineer is involved in the app-building process from the beginning, they can evaluate how feasible the brainstormed solutions are to code. This saves the resources that may otherwise be spent on an unrealistic idea.
The better final product. The motley crew principle states that “complex creative pursuits require diverse skills to produce value.” This couldn’t be more true for digital product development - it’s always a complex pursuit that benefits from a diverse skillset. On top of just combining the skills, cross-functional teams are also more critical and prevent groupthink. Groupthink is a psychological tendency for individual opinions to be overridden by the desire for a group consensus. Cross-functional teams disrupt this because the members think about the problem in diverse ways and therefore are unlikely to simply nod to one another for convenience.
Soft skills required in cross-functional teams
Although cross-functional teams are great in theory, there’s also a real possibility for them to become dysfunctional. To make sure this doesn’t happen, at UIG Studio we put a lot of impact on soft skills when putting together a cross-functional team.
A part of this is paying attention to the skills of the people we hire. However, we also encourage them to develop those skills through the way we manage our projects.
For a cross-functional team to build a successful product, communication between the team members needs to be brought to a whole new level. We need to dismantle communication barriers that, in a “silo mentality” leads to hoarding knowledge and ideas.
At UIG, we make it a priority to cultivate psychological safety within our teams. As one Google report indicates, this is the key to openly sharing ideas and opinions. Team members need to know they can afford to be vulnerable in front of one another. That’s the only way people will communicate what they think and feel.
Open-mindedness and teamwork
In a traditional, single-functional team, people sometimes hide behind their expertise. This allows them to avoid criticism and discard feedback that’s too difficult to swallow.
But cross-functional teams simply can’t afford this. To work towards a common goal, they need to be receptive to other perspectives. Only then combining various expertise actually makes sense and leads to better outcomes.
We try to facilitate this open-mindedness by highlighting the value of collaboration over competition. We make sure that everyone is working towards a common goal, rather than conflicting objectives. In this way, teamwork naturally improves and people start to bond.
As Javiero Otero put it, “as you’re building a product you are also building a team.”
Good leadership regulates the team dynamics and further strengthens cross-functional teams. A leader needs to know how to delegate tasks and facilitate communication - but also, when to leave team members to solve their conflicts independently.
When it comes to leadership, we take different approaches. Sometimes it’s good to assign a formal leader to a project. In other cases, a few leaders may emerge naturally on different stages of product development. This largely depends on what kind of people are on the team, and how inclined they feel to take the lead.
In cross-functional teams, it’s essential to know when to focus on a single task and when to “zoom out” to see the big picture. Moving between those two modes of working is an essential soft skill.
Knowing what to focus on can become a problem when progress on one task depends on another. For example, a software engineer may find himself waiting for the UI designer to finalize the interface prototype. In this case, it’s crucial to know in what other ways the engineer can be contributing to a project - and this requires the big-picture view of what’s going on.
At UIG, we try to encourage both single-task focus and engaging with the high-level issues of product development. In this way, we ensure that team members always have a way to contribute, even if their main task is put on hold.
The ability to pick and pursue the right ideas is a delicate art in cross-functional work. Sometimes, it requires people to give up on what they believe in because the rest of the team doesn’t agree. On the other hand, this can cause genuinely good ideas to slip away just because they came at the wrong time in the project.
To handle that, we train our cross-functional teams in presenting and evaluating ideas during meetings and discovery workshops. We put a lot of emphasis on that because we understand it takes skill and practice to be able to select the best solutions. Luckily, there are great tools that help us with that - for example, scrum methodology.
How startup owners benefit from a cross-functional approach in UIG Studio
Cross-functional teams have a lot of benefits. But what difference do they make for you directly as the product owner?
At UIG Studio, we’ve seen that cross-functional work doesn’t just benefit the final product. It also makes the whole process easier and more enriching for the product owner.
First and foremost, you won’t be sent across departments to get an answer, update, or report a bug to your product. Because cross-functional teams share knowledge, everyone is aware of the current state of the project and will be able to answer your questions.
Second, you’ll feel like a member of the team. You will actively participate in bringing your idea into life, providing feedback, expertise, and asking questions.
Finally, all the feedback will be incorporated fast, making sure that bugs are fixed as soon as possible and that your new business needs are accommodated for. A cross-functional team knows very well that product development and its requirements are fluid. Responding to change and aligning the next actions with what’s needed today is our specialty.
It all really comes down to effective and honest communication. We make it a priority because we know product development benefits from that. When paired up with cross-functional work, it allows us to deliver the product you need… even if you can’t pinpoint what it is just yet.