The cross-functional agile team playbook

How to avoid waterfall mishaps and build successful product teams

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Cross-functional teams required

The majority of literature about software product management, Agile delivery, and Lean methodologies to date focuses on building technical teams, yet the practice of design often sits outside of software organizations—and therein lies the problem. Designing the experience is the responsibility of the whole team, not just the design team. Teams that blend the practices of design, engineering, and product management lead to better experiences for the user.  

In 2015, we started to see a major swing in the nomenclature and thought leadership around what product teams should look like, especially around how design fits within the context of a product org. The product designer was an individual who could combine research, design systems, and data-driven decisions to inform and shape the outcomes. Instead of getting stuck on labels, we decided that a product designer should be aware of and practice some or all of the below.

Integrating product management, design, and engineering leads to several key benefits.

  • Design research informs the team of what the product should be before and during the delivery process. User research, service mapping, user testing, and other activities bring the product closer to desired outcomes.

  • Engineering should be vetting interface design decisions to weigh the technical feasibility, the impact on delivery goals,  and the benefits to the user.

  • Features that have already been developed can be visually QA’d by the design team to deliver higher aesthetic quality.  

  • Finally, team members who work closely together and have a shared understanding of multiple disciplines create better outcomes. For example, designers who have a fundamental knowledge of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript make better design decisions, produce higher quality products, and reduce the amount of churn inside the team. 

Agile doesn’t work without the proper organizational structure to enable autonomy. A healthy organizational structure needs progressive funding techniques to enable experimentation. Experimentation inevitably hits a bottleneck if the fundamental engineering best practices are not in place, such as automated testing, DevSecOps, and continuous delivery. To reach the desired throughput and quality, place the product at the center and integrate three mature disciplines as part of a single, cross-functional team: product management, product design, and software engineering.

Establishing a cross-functional team is a critical step for any product organization. The benefit of this team structure is that representation from core product disciplines are aligned throughout the entire process. The team understands the goal of the product, their role, the work they’re on point to produce, and how that influences the others on the team responsible for the build.

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