Ardonio Ltd

Sep 15, 2020

Cross functional teams

When I started getting involved in project management it didn't take long for someone to bring up the iron triangle. In essence it talks about the relationship between cost, time, scope and quality and how as a manager making a change in one necessarily means a change in others. These days my linkedin feed is full of wisdom along the lines of "Good, Cheap, Fast: choose two". The times they aren't exactly a-changin'...

So rather than regurgitate that triangle, let me substitute the 3 corners with a different set of values: Form, Function and Execution. It could look a bit like this Form Function and Execution Trinity

Function -- The 'what'

Taking ownership of "what" is typically the realm of product teams. I'm not trying to suggest that they are the only ones involved in defining the function of a product or feature, but they are leading the charge on discovering and defining this. Without trying to provide an exhaustive list, there are quite a few good tools out there on how to uncover function. The Design Sprint can be quite effective, particularly if you're in need of rapid prototyping and lots of fresh ideas. Equally the lean startup ethos and Lean Canvas can be a useful framework. And of course you can also base yourself more on user data, no matter if that's in the form of focus groups, surveys or insights you gather from existing usage. All of those ultimately serve to answer the same macro question "what does this thing do" or, more apt, "how does it add value for the customer". (and yes, the customer could be internal to the org)

Form -- The 'experience'

This is predominantly the corner of the creative team, and I take creative in a fairly broad sense. Obviously it'll feature the usual suspects producing stunning visual designs, but I also think of User Experience and related research, copywriters, etc. Most roles that contribute to first order "the look and feel" of your product are in this corner for me. I do say first order, because obviously there are 2nd order things such as performance, reaction time, etc.

While Form has a value of its own, for most commercial products I would say that its main purpose is to support and enhance function. There is a lot of literature on form vs function (or how form follows function if you're into industrial design), but the reality is that they can't really live without each other. Even "no design" is still a design choice.

Execution -- Bringing it all together

The 3rd component in this trinity is what I call execution. It's all the activities that take the input from product & design and transform that into a tangible product for people to use. In software, that means the bulk of the work here is in the engineering team. In reality product&design should work closely with the engineering team because while they work they make thousands of small decisions. All of those have an impact on the final output.

To give you an idea, something as simple as rounded corners on a button used to be rather difficult technically and so even though the design team might have them everywhere, when time is finite engineers might agree with design to have rectangular buttons. A particular report might be a great feature, but it turns out it takes 5 minutes to generate...does that still meet the "adding value for teh customer" test?

These kind of questions do come up and no engineer tries to do a bad job, but the decisions they make are what the final product will look like...by definition.

Ok...so play nice?

I'm hoping it's obvious that these 3 groups don't really play in isolation, even though I've seen many organisations pretend they are. How often have you seen a company go through this cycle: define a feature, get the creatives to design it, give the "final design" to the dev team, dev team produces something within feasible technical constraints, ... original feature doesn't really address the problem and isn't quite what the design team thought it would be.

It's one of the main reasons that I believe in cross-functional teams. If these 3 teams work closely together and are aligned (and incentivized) to produce a result together that tends to create better results.