In my company’s early days, we were a small design agency with a singular focus. As we grew, we added staff in other disciplines so we could work directly with them and create a more efficient workflow. As people in other disciplines joined the fold, we saw how beneficial it was to have all these players at the same table.
With our business and so many others, industries are evolving at a breakneck pace, and tech companies need coordinated teams to meet shifting demands. Cross-disciplinary organization — bringing together the knowledge, experience, and skills of various roles — is the clearest way to stay ahead of the curve and run an efficient, effective team.
The Communication Crash
Achieving a high level of efficiency boils down to good communication. If you talk to any company about how the business is doing, the answer will always hinge on that. Companies doing well have strong lines of communication, but poor communication strains an organization and creates stress across the entire team.
Many companies have a structure with departments separated into roles or skill sets. Each group has its own deadlines and restraints, which discourages open dialogue and collaboration with other teams in favor of hunkering down to get things done. But this assembly-line style of production doesn’t work in modern-day business, and communication suffers.
Cross-disciplinary teams take a different approach. At my company, our product teams include a product manager, a designer, multiple developers, and a test engineer. The team has some autonomy and is able to move forward much faster because team members are working together and talking to one another every day. In other operations, each department is handed one piece of a project, does the work, and then throws it over a wall to the next department.
Workers on cross-disciplinary teams are more engaged and have opportunities to learn disciplines outside of their own because they are closely working together.
And engaged workers are going to be more productive and happy. It’s an area in which the U.S. workforce needs to improve, as only a third of workers report being engaged at work. That adds up to $550 billion in lost productivity every year.
The truly exciting part is that these teams produce results more quickly. Tech company leaders can see that the team is adapting and making a bigger impact. That recognition improves morale and inspires even greater productivity, which creates a more vibrant company culture.
Adaptability is key. In three years, if my company is doing things the same way that we do them today, we will be obsolete.
Cross-disciplinary teams keep tech companies nimble and changing to stay relevant in their industries.
Here are some of the myriad benefits of cross-disciplinary teams:
1. Greater progress in record time
Early in my career, I worked with an outsourced engineering team. I would spend days or weeks working on a design only for that team to come back with totally misaligned specifications, causing massive confusion and reworks.
When we hired an in-house engineer, I was able to literally slide over in my chair and tell him what I thought. We’d immediately be going back and forth and come to an agreement within hours that would have taken our outsourced team two or more weeks.
Cross-disciplinary teams have such smooth lines of communication that a monthlong project could be completed in a fraction of that time. Ideally, these teams are able to release earlier and more often. Yet even when the final product takes more time, it becomes much easier to show incremental progress to leadership every step of the way.
Keep in mind that incorporating remote employees into the mix requires some creativity. We struggled when we added our first remote employee because we had to rethink how we collaborate, handle meetings, and have impromptu conversations. We looked closely at the tools we used to communicate and experimented with new ways to accomplish the level of engagement we need in cross-disciplinary teams.
2. Increased employee interaction and bonding
There’s a trust that is formed across disciplines when working in close quarters on a unified goal. Because people from different areas of the tech company are coming together, there is a greater diversity of viewpoints in discussions, creating more camaraderie across employees at every level. Some disciplines tend to be male-dominated, while women fill others, so creating cross-disciplinary teams has increased gender diversity as well.
Employees also learn more about other jobs and gain a better appreciation for one another.
One of my top designers became my top developer because he was exposed to the role, and he wanted to figure out how to develop. We gave him a shot, and he shadowed another developer. It took some time, but he’s now my lead architect.
Having employees learn about other jobs is a way of working so closely together does require attention when addressing tension and disagreements. Members of autonomous, collaborative teams quickly notice who isn’t pulling his or her weight.
Teams need tools and processes that help co-workers voice concerns and resolve them. Regular retrospectives and frequent one-on-one meetings have helped us quickly identify and address any breakdowns in trust. In time, our teams generally come out on the other side working better together.
3. Improved morale and employee retention
That guy who went from designer to developer? He’s been with us for 10 years. We tend to find that once employees are trained in our methodology, they become our best recruiters. Almost everyone we’ve hired has been a referral from someone who already works here.
The turnover in our industry is incredibly high, but we’ve found that employees in different crafts really love working together, so they don’t leave. Teammates are exposed to more ideas and thrive in a more dynamic work environment.
I realized that as our team grew, we needed to have a good handle on employee morale so we wouldn’t be blindsided when someone quit or asked to move to another team. So we implemented a couple of changes that have been game-changers.
One is adopting 15Five surveys in which employees spend 15 minutes each week telling us about how they’re feeling about their work and team. This has been an incredible tool for team members and their supervisors. And it led to the second item, which is more frequent one-on-one meetings with supervisors and members of their teams. We had already been doing these, but 15Fives give supervisors a clearer understanding of how their teams are feeling and performing. They discuss needed improvements in their conversations with each team member.
Intermixing design, tech, development, and other often siloed departments allow for more seamless and impactful customer service.
By creating cross-disciplinary teams, you will find no better way to engage employees, increase productivity, and improve your bottom line.