Improving Cross-Functional Relationships
Right after the new year began, I started to hear this question from a bunch of my coaching and workshop clients. Whether they were thinking about roles in product, engineering, design, project management, or another business function, it seems to be the season to tackle the fault lines between peer leaders across functions.
When relationships are broken between cross-functional team leads, you might see a few different symptoms:
- Particular kinds of work aren’t getting done, because folks think it’s someone else’s responsibility
- You hear a lot of complaints about ambiguity, but see no work by team leads to create the clarity that’s needed
- One or more leads are waiting for another team lead to fail in their work
- You see a sense of urgency from one function, and a lack of understanding about that urgency from another
- There’s an imbalance of information across functions (engineering knew about a critical deadline, but product didn’t. Or design knew about new company-wide OKRs before anyone else did)
Below are some approaches and resources to help you repair (or strengthen) these cross-functional relationships. No matter which role you’re in, you’ve got a ton of options at your disposal. It’s time to get curious! :)
Get curious about individuals’ core needs
As we know from Paloma Medina’s BICEPS model, humans have six core needs at work. And when one or more of these core needs feel threatened or undernourished, you’ll see someone resist ideas, pick fights, or check out.
Your Engineering Manager might not understand how they relate to the team’s work, so their sense of Belonging might feel threatened. Your Product Manager might feel like the Tech Lead gets to make all the decisions around team priorities, and their sense of Choice might feel threatened. Your Design Lead might see leaders in the other functions getting promoted according to those disciplines’ career ladders, and feel that it’s unfair (Equality/Fairness core need!) that they don’t have that same opportunity.
You’ve gotta get curious about what’s going on for the folks who are feeling frustrated or showing some resistance before you can figure out how to address those feelings. Though it’s tempting to assume that you know which (if any) of those core needs are undernourished for them, it’s important that you ask lots of authentically curious questions to get to the root of what they’re feeling. Try some of these Deeper Questions that Paloma Medina developed.
- “It would help me to understand, what feels most upsetting about this?”
- “You’re a person who has a good sense of how folks are taking this – what do you think people are liking and disliking about this so far?”
- “If we could improve this by 10% for you/ your team, what would we do first?”
Get more specific than “accountable”
Too often when I hear folks talking about this topic, I hear the word “accountable” thrown around without any additional specificity. “Project Managers should be accountable for X” doesn’t really mean much without some extra information.
If you hear people talk about accountability in a hand-wavy way, ask them to get more specific. For example, I’ve heard people say a person is “accountable for X project” when they actually mean:
- is penalized if X doesn’t launch in time
- should be the person keeping stakeholders up-to-date
- should be thinking through all possible risks
- is the final decision-maker at the end of the day
A RACI matrix can help with this, too, but I still think it’s good to get even more specific for the R and the A. Your homework: ask people to “paint a picture” of what they mean when they use the word “accountable”, so that you can make sure you’re on the same page.
Build a first team mindset
“A First Team mindset is the idea that leaders prioritize supporting their fellow leaders over supporting their direct reports—that they are responsible to their peers more than they are to their individual teams.” — Jason Wong
Jason walks through a bunch of phenomenal tactics to instill a first-team mentality in your organization in this post. At a high level, he suggests:
- Be clear with them about their responsibility to one another, proactively
- Treat them like a cohort: bring them together on a regular basis and afford them the same benefits and constructs as a normal team
- Help them help each other: constantly encourage them to talk to one another about their problems, and refer them to each other for help
- Help them help you: invite your team to help you solve your problems as well
Though Jason is talking about instilling a first-team mindset within his function, his tips absolutely apply to a cross-functional organization as well. Help your cross-functional leaders see how they could be a part of each other’s Voltron crew (a multifacted crew of support).
Document, document, document
I can’t send a newsletter about cross-functional responsibilities without mentioning the Venn Diagram method. I’ve found that this is a handy approach to acknowledging that these cross-functional roles will have distinct responsibilities as well as some shared responsibilities.
To create your own:
- Schedule a meeting with the other leaders on your team to chat about what could go in each circle, what could go in the overlaps, etc.
- Gain a shared understanding of responsibilities per role on your team, and document it.
- Share the outcome of that meeting with the rest of your team. Answer questions, add clarity, make tweaks as needed.