When a company’s size grows to more than 10 people, something fundamentally changes. The fun and the tight-knit feeling you had in a small team goes out the window. Communication becomes more difficult. People do their own thing and mind their own business as they drift toward the dreaded silo.
When that happened at my own company, I looked back to the time when we had around five people. I tried to figure out what had changed: why we moved so fast when we were five people, why we felt like a family when we were that small. And, why it did not feel the same way once our team size grew to 15.
That’s when I discovered the idea of cross-functional teams. In mid-2015, I restructured my company around this idea. I decided that each team would have around five people. Each team would include people from different functions, including development, design, marketing, data science, operations and customer support.
Small cross-functional teams act like tiny companies inside your company. They have all the power to be agile and highly collaborative. They become go-getters.
Each of our teams was then provided a private room with a large white board where they could meet and discuss their ideas behind closed doors. The company paid for weekly lunches and gave each team a small budget for fun activities.
Once I restructured my company into these cross-functional teams, the fun and speed came back. And the results have been great for our product, our customers and our bottom line.
The teams have bonded. The morale has been off the charts. People now love coming to work in the morning. Employee turnover is almost nonexistent. Our productivity has gone through the roof.
The addition of customer support has been another key move, since those personnel are the voice, within the teams, of our customers. Since the support teams are the ones responding to customers every day via our ticketing system, these customer-support members know the day-to-day needs of our customers best.
In addition to helping their own teams come up with new solutions, these customer-support members are also key in helping their cross-functional team better understand and communicate with our end-users.
It should be noted that cross-functional teams are not something we invented: They're used by some of the top tech companies, including Facebook and WordPress. The use of such teams allows these companies to work with tremendous speed while still growing their organizational size.
So, what makes cross-functional teams so successful? There are five reasons: trust, speed, creativity, ownership and freedom.
Being physically close builds trust among team members. Sitting side by side in the same room, making decisions together, going to lunch together and doing fun activities together creates strong bonds among team members.
Together, the teams celebrate successes and mourn failures. All teams that function well have one big thing in common -- a tremendous amount of trust between and among team members.
Cross-functional teams are small and nimble, which means they can make decisions and execute tasks in a short amount of time. When teams need to make a decision or change direction, they don’t schedule a meeting two weeks from today.
The team members can quickly huddle, discuss the situation and make decisions on the spot. They decide fast. They move fast.
Creativity requires diversity. Bringing people from different functions together is a great recipe for coming up with fresh new ideas since each individual brings a unique perspective to the table. “A developer, a designer and a marketer walk into a bar”: Such a sentence would be a great set-up for a joke, but when those people actually do walk into the same room, their ability to come up with great solutions increases exponentially.
In small teams, there is more transparency, and the results are immediately visible. There is a one-to-one relationship between team members and results. The recognition is more frequent, specific and meaningful. For example, if the design of a final solution is great, it is obvious that the designer of the team has done a great job.
In the same way, failures are also obviously linked to the team members. When you know that you will get the credit for the results, you are more likely to perform better.
Cross-functional teams have more freedom to make their decisions and work their own way. When you are free to do what you want, you invest more into your work. You give yourself to the work. Freedom breeds ownership and ownership breeds results.
The overall lesson I learned was to not be afraid to try a different course of action. Change can be difficult for people and for companies. However, if your current system is not effective and you don’t take the initiative to improve via change, staying the course can be disastrous.