Nimble, cross-functional teams are the lynchpin of the effective digital organization and the perfect example of collaboration in action. Bringing together people from different functions to focus on a single goal and replicating that process across the enterprise enables companies to tackle multiple product and service development initiatives simultaneously. And that’s arguably the only way to move, and innovate, at the speed and scale that today’s business environment requires.
A team collaborating successfully, at the height of its powers and productivity, can be a beautiful thing. But a lot of cross-functional teams - around three-quarters, according to Harvard Business Review - are, to at least some extent, dysfunctional. Sometimes this is a result of structural problems; but in our experience, it also has a lot to do with how teams work. That’s why the business needs to emphasize a culture and processes that ensure the team exists in practice as well as name, and make team collaboration a reality.
The common benefits of collaborative agile practices include:
Team collaboration can fail to produce the desired results if it isn’t oriented around specific goals. As Sunil Mundra, Principal Consultant at Thoughtworks and the author of Enterprise Agility - Being Agile in a Changing World, notes, "blithely implementing change, just doing it" can create the illusion of agile without the impact.
“There's nothing wrong with starting that way - there are processes and ceremonies that are there to implement - but if you just do that the inertia that is still there from the systemic issues in the organization will overpower any green shoots you create at the team level, and you’ll be back to your original state,” he says. “If you don't understand the 'why' of what you’re doing, it's not going to give you any benefit.”
The other major threat to team collaboration is excessive hierarchy, which can stifle the open dialogue that needs to underpin it. “A lot of organizations are very much power struggles, which affects people's ability to deal with honest communication,” says Thoughtworks Chief Scientist Martin Fowler. “That doesn‘t work at all with agile, which demands a much greater degree of transparency.”
Team collaboration may be viewed as a ‘soft’ concept, and any cross-functional team will include non-technologists. Yet at the same time, the realities of digital business and the pace of technological change mean collaboration-based development has to be rooted, to at least some extent, in ‘hard’ technology skills, capable of supporting processes like rapid prototyping and dynamically solutions in response to user feedback.
"This is specific to the software world but there are parallels in the non-software world as well," Fowler explains. “Organizations are not giving the necessary attention to things like testing and development, refactoring and discretion, or the specific technical skills in their area. These really enable the shift between the first and second levels of the Agile Fluency Model, where technical expertise is required to get you to the levels of productivity and effective execution you're trying to attain."