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5 Lessons I’ve Learned from Building a Cross Functional Team

At Kluge, we have always prided ourselves in having a dynamic team that supports each other to build great things.  With a firm belief that a fantastic web site is the product of many people of different skill sets working together we have always thought of ourselves as cross-functional and able to think about business strategy, project management, design, development and user experience through the lens of each of our specialized team members.

Throughout the journey, I have learned some great lessons, which I will try to summarize in five broad strokes:

Having Different Disciplines Does not Mean the Team is Cross Functional

Building a web site with different team members does not automatically mean that a team is cross-functional.  They are still team members of different specialties working together to build one product.  If they don’t know enough about each other, if they aren’t constantly working together, if they aren’t learning from each other’s point of view, that will come across in the product.  A true cross-functional team does not just happen.  It evolves as a result of open communication and collaboration.

When we started our work, we used to build fast and get on the phone often, but it was still a waterfall process.  Our Creative Director Abraham would make a lot of calls that we later found out our development team wasn’t into.  Sometimes it’s still that way.  And sometimes they have design opinions too!

The process is always evolving

Communication is the Key

It is not just getting on the phone, providing good specs or articulated deliverables.  It is not just internal communication or external communication with the client.  It is the combination of it all, the conscious understanding that at the root of the multiple disciplines and multiple stakeholders working together to build a product, the biggest sticking point is always communication.  Instill a system and a process by which the team is encouraged to constantly communicate with each other and with the client.

We combine Basecamp, Gotomeeting, Google Drive, Hangouts, Skype, text messaging and phone calls.  Since we are a virtual team, we have learned through the hard way that only by enabling as many channels as possible, can we even begin to emulate what happens in a local office environment.  We have switched between having too many meetings and not enough meetings.  Ultimately, we have been forcing ourselves to talk enough to feel a rhythm and a pulse to our communication.

Skype chat with team

Take Advantage Of Overlaps

There are plenty of overlaps in building a product with a cross-functional team.  For example, if we are creating an interactive experience, who takes the lead? The UX Designer? The frontend developer? The UI Designer?  This is an area where everyone can participate and there is huge overlap.  Use these points of contentions as perfect places for the team to discuss each other’s roles, understand what is driving and motivating each one of them, and build better product together.

I used to be surprised when our designer, Daniel, was the one who found the better script, or our interactive developer, Gustavo, was the one who improved the design call.  Now I’ve learned to depend on it, and to keep prodding each other and pushing our boundaries.

Assumptions Only Go So Far

By principle, a team that is comfortable working together will start making assumptions about each other.  A designer with frontend development know-how might design a beautiful interface making assumptions as to how long it will take for development to code this design.  A developer might make assumptions as to what the designer was thinking in a design that is incomplete.  This can be good!  It speeds up the work and shows that you know about each other.  But it’s even better when you feel comfortable enough to ask your fellow designer or developer to clear up the assumption.  A true cross-functional team has a communication flow that allows and encourages ongoing questions and never just makes assumptions about each other’s roles.

This is an ongoing struggle – and sometimes we have to have the discipline and the process to enable it.

Basecamp collaboration

Always Nurture the Team

And finally, a cross-functional team is always evolving and always learning together.  Yes, each team member needs time to think specifically about their craft, and needs to work on their own whether it’s on photoshop, a spreadsheet, or a terminal console, but always find the time to bring back the team to share what they are learning and thinking.  Think the big picture together – talk about LeanUX, Lean Startup, and the broader web trends.

I’m proud of the cross-functional team that we have built over the years and constantly amazed by the way in which our specialties can often unite us and sync us up and sometimes separate us and create differences of opinion in the approach.  Only through continuous learning and growing together have we managed to call ourselves a team.

But I know the journey has just started.  We are still playing and experimenting with processes – looking for better systems that embrace the fluidity that the creative side of our brains demands with the structure that a good process requires.

Team Relaxing