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How to build a cross-functional collaboration culture for product teams
Collaboration and communication can lead to massive business success. Productivity increases when teams and individual contributors are connected, and businesses with effective communication strategies have the potential to outperform their competition.
Last updated18 Aug 2022
But, how can product teams ensure they have a cross-functional collaboration culture to harness this success? We're so glad you asked.
In this article, we cover:
Let’s get to it.
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What is cross-functional collaboration and communication?
Cross-functional collaboration and communication happens when people with different skill sets and KPIs come together to work towards a greater goal, which is typically ROI-centric and critical to business success.
A cross-communication culture harnesses everyone's talents, tools, and expertise to hit business goals more efficiently and quickly.
Cross-functional product teams might contribute towards decreased churn rates and increased retention rates, upping product signups and activations, and MRR business growth.
Product management is cross-functional by nature, with most product teams having a mix of engineers, designers, product managers, and sometimes also analysts, researchers, and other roles.
5 benefits of cross-functional collaboration and communication
Knee-deep in user research and release notes, it can be easy for product managers and your teams to work in silos, forgetting you have a diverse team behind you working towards the same goals.
When product teams fully realize the support available from other teams, you can collectively work towards goals faster and more efficiently than ever before.
Plus, when you implement a cross-functional communication strategy in your product team, you're more likely to avoid project management challenges like miscommunication, unnecessary product renditions, and workforce conflicts.
Here are five benefits of cross-functional collaboration and communication:
1. Shared data
Marketing, sales, finance, and customer success—every team within an organization has a unique set of data insights that can prove extremely valuable to the product design process.
A cross-functional communication culture encourages teams to share their data in an empathetic way, conscious of the person receiving that data. For example, going beyond just emailing a data export by recording a short explainer video. This way, someone from another team can easily understand and use the data to their advantage.
2. Increased innovation
Collaborative teams are innovative teams: work is shared more, opinions and expertise are exchanged, and projects get diverse input—which leads to more empathetic and inclusive products.
For example, when you open your product build to other key members of the business, you collect insights that revolve around other business pillars. Inputs from support, marketing, and sales can all shed light on varying customer needs. At the same time, inputs from others within the product team can dive deeper into jobs to be done (JTBD).
Molly Hellerman, global head of innovation programs at Atlassian, stresses the importance of cross-functional collaboration and innovation—especially in the digital space. Hellerman says, “to encourage wider collaboration; companies must tear down information silos [...] the more you include people and get their ideas early, the faster you can iterate.”
3. Develop a common language and inclusive culture
Product teams sometimes develop a language of their own when it comes to operations. Whether you do this intentionally—like the Spotify Squads culture—or unintentionally—and the language emerges naturally—it can be hard for other teams to decode and meet your product team on the same page.
A cross-collaboration culture combats product-centric language and uses common language in a style that all departments and talent can understand. This helps battle miscommunication and builds a more inclusive company culture.
For example, a cross-functional collaboration strategy could include a company-wide language knowledge base. This knowledge base will act as the ‘glossary’ for your business so every employee (new or old) is kept in the loop.
4. Goal alignment
Great communication across teams helps different departments align on larger, business-centric goals and understand company-wide KPIs to reach them. Teams can identify where and when you can come together to help the business hit growth goals, and reach success faster and more efficiently.
For example, cross-team communication may identify a much-needed sync in any new feature prototyping stage. Your teams may want to align to run 1-on-1 UI tests like tree tests, 5-second tests, card sorting, and more.
5. Prioritize customer experience
Product experience insights are crucial to building customer-centric products that are empathetic and user-friendly. By creating a cross-communication culture, you can build products that put your users first and bring diverse inputs and data into the product build.
For example, your marketing or support teams may have valuable website data that can inform your product evolution:
Which blog page or help article is the most visited?
Which images or videos are most popular?
What are the most frequently asked customer questions?
The answers to those questions provide useful insights for optimizing your product and the user experience.
What does a successful cross-functional product team look like?
A cross-functional product team doesn’t need to include someone from every department. Other departments are valuable resources for your work and can provide critical insights, guidance, and feedback—but you’re probably familiar with the expression: "too many cooks spoil the broth."
Be cautious as you build a cross-functional team and consider the talent you need to communicate with while remaining agile. To help you with this, let's look at the recipe for a successful cross-functional product team.
Here's who you need:
A product manager is responsible for heading up the cross-functional initiative. A PM needs to be reliable, contactable, and have the ability to tie people together if they see a benefit from doing so.
It’s so easy for developers to get stuck in their bubble. Even with cross-functional collaboration in effect, the dev team will still need to remain somewhat self-organizational and manage the product backlog within their sub-teams.
A successful cross-functional product team will see developers communicating frequently, and each sprint or iteration will be a joint effort of everyone on board.
Your QA team helps to spot (and swat) bugs, identify UX and UI opportunities, and ready your product for market. Your quality assurance team can be in-house or outsourced—both options are valuable and effective. But no matter where or who your QA resources are, they need to be accessible to the rest of your product team.
QA resources are not a one-way street. Ensure you have the infrastructure to host conversations—no matter how you’re choosing to operate QA.
Consider product squads
The Spotify Squads framework might not be the best example of successful cross-functional product culture, but there are elements to consider for your cross-communication framework.
For example, tribes, chapters, and guilds are all ways in which Spotify tried to promote cross-team communication. Although the overwhelming amount of autonomy eventually led to the culture's failure, the way in which Spotify promoted communication across teams is something to be learned from.
4 Examples of cross-functional communication being successfully put into practice
Don’t just take our word for it: some companies are already leading the way with cross-functional communication, setting the example for how this work culture can be implemented in other product teams and entire organizations.
Here are four of them:
As we mentioned, Spotify created a product-centric framework that eventually failed but highlighted a few practical ways product teams could build a cross-functional communication culture.
It’s worth considering squads, guilds, tribes, or chapter arrangements—as promoted by Spotify Squads—to find unique and relevant ways to tie people and their work together.
With over 130,000 employees and over a billion customers worldwide, a cross-functional product team at such scale would surely be a disaster, right? Wrong. Apple has an entire team and initiative with their Nerve Center—Information Systems and Technology (IS&T) team that helps ensure the business runs a cross-functional culture smoothly and efficiently.
“Cross-functional collaboration is crucial because no one team is responsible for a product or a service on its own,” says Jason Giles, the company’s Wireless Software Engineering Manager.
“Dozens of specialist teams may be needed for even a single key component of a new product. Yet each team works with a shared purpose—create an extraordinary user experience.”
Nokia is going from strength to strength in recent years. Net sales are consistently up and their network infrastructure initiative drove a 28% increase in revenues in 2021.
The business promotes a “diverse culture [and] collaborative experience. No matter what part of the world you’re in, [Nokia enables] collaboration through advanced virtual meeting and knowledge sharing tools and systems.”
Open collaboration is the core of Nokia’s culture and is deemed to be the key to achieving such high goals. The Nokia Bell Labs initiative has spent nearly 100 years “cultivating a culture of research that is collaborative, interdisciplinary, and open.”
All product teams at Hotjar are made up of several different roles, so cross-functional collaboration is both implicit and crucial to work.
How much these roles need to collaborate with other teams mostly depends on each squad’s ownership area and if that’s vertical or horizontal in scope. For example, product teams working on specific features are more vertical in nature and have a narrower scope, so they might need to collaborate less than more horizontal product teams.
My team’s responsible for growth and user acquisition, which means we need to collaborate closely with our marketing, content, sales, and other product teams.
Cross-functional collaboration at Hotjar is at a company level. There are a lot of different initiatives that help break down silos, and enable and encourage people to work collaboratively with other teams.
How does Hotjar maintain cross-functional collaboration? Let us count (some of) the ways:
Monthly ‘Ask Me Anything’ meetings: where people bring up big, hairy topics that usually spark a lot of healthy debates and conversations. AMAs are also great for people that want to stay in the loop or want to get involved and contribute to a specific initiative or event.
Quarterly Product Chapter week: where talent splits into small cross-functional teams made up of product, design, data, research, and other disciplines, and each team works on a specific user problem that Hotjar is trying to better understand or solve.
For example, these teams could deal with anything from promoting Hotjar use cases—enabling greater success with the tool—all the way through to unblocking new feature use within the platform.
Weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly sync meetings: team members within each department share what their focus is for the upcoming sprint or quarter and what they're working on. This helps keep teams aligned with their priorities.
The cadence and nature of these syncs is determined by whether teams are collaborating on a project with a specific function, or they need more of a catch-up session. This helps everyone ensure they stay in sync while also respecting each other’s time.
When collaborating on a project or working on a request from a specific team, Hotjar uses these meetings to discuss any dependencies or blockers, and to set clear expectations on delivery.
Cooperation feedback surveys: after completing a project or initiative, teams send out a survey to everyone they collaborated with. In this survey, teams ask colleagues to rate how proactive they were (in trying to identify the best solution and keeping them up to date) throughout the entire process.
We also ask them what we can start/stop doing in order to improve how we communicate and collaborate better. The feedback we have received so far has really been instrumental in helping us improve our cross-functional collaboration.
Public roadmap: like the rest of the company, Product also keeps a public roadmap for users (in this case Hotjarians) where quarterly focus areas are shared, initiatives currently in progress, and any big-bet items in the product backlog. This keeps other teams in the loop with the product team’s work.
“We don't wait for only when we need these events, or when they need us. We maintain continuously open channels of communication and so far this has worked wonders in not only improving our communication with other teams but also strengthening our relationship with them,” says Lynette Mutungi, Product Manager at Hotjar.
“Giving room for other teams to share feedback on how we can improve the way we communicate and collaborate has also been helpful.
Simply put, nothing is written in stone. Sometimes we have to reschedule syncs because there may not be anything new to catch up on while other times, we have had to increase the frequency of how often we are meeting. Taking the feedback we have received and adjusting accordingly is also part of being flexible.
One other helpful tip is if you can, take time to understand what other functions are prioritizing and why this is important to them. This could be through shadowing sessions or reviewing their OKRs.”
These events are a great way for team members to get to work with people from other teams that they might not usually interact with, and to bring a big diversity of perspectives and experiences to the table.
Subcultures: each team has the freedom to form their own subculture and do things that make sense to them.
For example, one squad uses a ‘quarter in review’ format where they share details with the entire team on what they’ve been working on, what they’ve learned from it, and what they plan to focus on in the future. This helps add visibility to that team’s work for other teams and invites others to initiate a collaboration on some of those projects.
What I like the most about how we approach the way we communicate and collaborate at Hotjar is that we view it as something dynamic that’s constantly evolving. We’re not set in our ways and are always looking at ways we can improve this.
5 tools for cross-functional product teams
Strong cross-functional teams need the tools to match. No matter how much of a collaboration culture you encourage within your team—or your entire company—if you’re not enabling everyone with the tools they need to make it work, it won’t.
Here are our top tools to help manage a cross-functional collaboration team in product management.
Use a combination of quantitative and qualitative data to enhance your product, release and test new features, and create empathetic customer delight opportunities throughout the customer lifecycle.
“We do a lot of dogfooding at Hotjar. For those unfamiliar with the term, it basically means we’re using our own product in our daily work. Luckily, Hotjar makes it easy for us to collaborate within our squad, and also with our teams,” says Andrei Beno, Growth Product Manager at Hotjar.
“For example, whenever we run an experiment, we use Heatmaps and Session Recordings to identify any issues and to assess how a new variation of a feature is performing. We create segments to help zoom in on a specific set of users, and then either share that segment with others in the team or share an individual recording that’s most relevant. With recordings, we also leave comments for other team members to draw their attention to a specific part of the recording.
That Hotjar integrates with a lot of our suite of tools also helps. We’re heavy Slack users, and we set up dedicated Slack channels that we connect to Hotjar, so we get feedback from our users as soon as they submit it using our Incoming Feedback tool. Having that feed into our Slack channels means that we all have visibility into it, and we can have meaningful conversations across teams around all the issues that come through from our users.”
Hotjar pricing starts with a free plan for up to 1,000 pageviews/heatmaps. From there, Hotjar offers a selection of pricing plans depending on your business needs, anything from 100 daily sessions all the way through to 40,000 daily sessions.
2. Atlassian JIRA
Heralded as the number one software development tool for product development teams, Jira allows cross-functional communication teams to plan, track, release, and report on software.
The SaaS tool comes with some great features like:
Agile reporting and
Code and deployment status overviews
There’s a freemium version of the tool for small teams—up to ten people—and the premium or enterprise plans can go up to around $14 per user per month, on average.
A drag-and-drop roadmapping tool to help product teams collaboratively build product roadmaps in just a few clicks. The tool comes with customizable layouts and unlimited roadmaps, ensuring your team can effortlessly align on product strategy.
The business plan of the tool starts at $39 per editor per month, and you can get in touch with the team if you think you’ll benefit from the Enterprise or Enterprise plus plan.
Rapid product testing for remote teams. Maze helps teams validate ideas and concepts, run wireframe and usability tests, test content and copy, and measure feedback or satisfaction rates.
Maze lets an unlimited number of users run up to three projects in the tool for free. If you want more than three projects, professional plans start from $25 per seat.
Last on our list of tools for cross-functional teams is Scrumwise. The software empowers product teams to effortlessly manage scrum projects and backlogs, and plan releases or sprints with Kanban boards. The tool lets you manage task boards, burndown charts, time tracking, and more.
Scrumwise pricing is just as simple: the monthly plan starts at $9 per user per month and goes down to $7.50 per user per month.
My advice for anyone wanting to improve the way they collaborate cross-functionally is to learn from how other companies are approaching this while being critical with what actually fits your own organization and what aligns with your structure, values, and people. There isn't a one-size-fits-all. There isn’t a silver bullet. While it’s great to get inspired by others, it’s important to adapt any framework, model or approach you’re inspired by to your own unique team and culture.
Introduce Hotjar to your cross-functional tech stack
Get the product experience insights you need to create products your users love.