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Lessons learned from building cross-functional teams at Memory

Francesca Salmon
Content Distribution Executive
Last updated on
October 5, 2022
Lessons learned from building cross-functional teams at Memory

At most companies, team members are typically organized based on disciplines: product, design, marketing, sales, and so on. That’s how we used to do it at Memory, too. But when Nick Hornell, Head of Product for our flagship product Timely, first joined the team, he realized that approach just wasn’t working.

“One of the things that became quite apparent is that I found myself in meetings where I didn't always have the right people in the room at the right time . . . I was constantly having to run around. I have to hold a meeting there. I have to park something. I have to go and speak to this person. I have to come back and go back over here. And the efficiency just isn't there.”

For the very first episode of Inside Memory, I sat down with Nick to chat about his experience spearheading a totally new cross-functional team structure within Memory, and how his team stays connected, aligned and motivated while separated by physical distance.

Watch the full video below.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

Breaking down functional boundaries

Fran: Hello and welcome to the first episode of Inside Memory. I’m Fran. Today we’ll be looking at cross-functional teams, which we’ve recently adopted at Memory. I’m joined by Nick.

Nick: Hello!

Fran: Thank you very much for joining me, this is very exciting.

Nick: Thank you for having me. And the first episode as well, quite excited.

Fran: What an honor! To give us some context into why we’re doing this, maybe you can tell us a bit about who you are. What do you do? Where are you from?

Nick: Yeah, sure. So, my official title is Product Manager. I’ve been doing that role for about 12 years now. I started life in this industry by chance, actually. I got my first real break working for the BBC, in Salford Quays where they’re based now, working in their Future Media and Learning division.

I then spent a few years working in lots of different companies. And I think the biggest thing has been spending time in lots of different-sized companies, because with Memory being where it's at right now, one of the important things is to appreciate and understand the need for change as we grow and we get bigger.

In the world of product and product management it's all about trying to get the most value out of the time that we've got, and the skills and capabilities we've got, which involves lots of key decision-making. So my background – having been in lots of big companies, small companies – has given me quite a lot of insight, which is nice when you need to be quite flexible and malleable.

Fran: You touched on the change within Memory. Over the last couple of years there’s been a lot of change. We’ve had some funding. We’ve had a lot of new team members joining. And now, this cross-functional team restructuring. Could we maybe dive into what a cross-functional team structure even is?

Nick: Absolutely. So I joined Memory last year in February, which means I’ve been here what, 15 months now. When I first joined I was hired in the role of product manager for Timely, which is our flagship product. It quickly became quite clear to me that Timely, as a product and an entity, is actually quite a lot bigger than even we often give it credit for. And I mean that from the point of view of the complexity, the many problems that it solves and also the many challenges that we've got to overcome to try and improve it and take it forward.

It was quite clear that we had sort-of proxy teams built around disciplines. You’ve got Marketing. You’ve got Sales. You've got Backend Engineering. You've got Frontend and UX design. One of the things that became quite apparent is that I found myself in meetings where I didn't always have the right people in the room at the right time. What that creates is this running around. I was constantly having to run around. I have to hold a meeting there. I have to park something. I have to go and speak to this person. I have to come back and go back over here. And the efficiency just isn't there.

And so to answer your question, what exactly is a cross-functional team? If I could describe it I would say that it's about always making sure that you've got the right minds in the room. You don't ever have to walk away from that group and go and find answers elsewhere. I'm not saying that that's necessarily always doable. You’re constantly striving to get there but that's the inherent goal. You want to make sure you’ve got all of the minds that you need in the right place at the right time, so that you're not having to wait between all of these interactions.

Overcoming groupthink

Fran: Why do you think cross-functional teams are so critical to product-focused organizations?

Nick: Without them, in my opinion, you don’t get the necessary disagreement. A healthy company, particularly a healthy SaaS, digital product company — its success is ultimately built around disagreement. And there's a fine line between, you know, arguing and really strong debate and it is super critical.

Honestly speaking, if you're working in a company where you’re not – day in, day out – having positive disagreements about what you should be doing, I would argue that you're probably not spending enough time running the gauntlet with these different disciplines and actually challenging assumptions.

And what that leads to again is inefficiency. Because at the end of the day, the complete failure of my role as a Product Manager, is you end up putting stuff out the door that you slap yourselves on the back for. And then find out that was ill-considered, ill thought of. And worst of all, half the people in the business didn't even know it had been done!

Making remote cross-team collaboration work

Fran: It definitely goes back to a lack of communication. With a remote company, miscommunication can happen all too easily. You’re sending a Slack message, working in Google Sheets, whatever. What are some ways to ensure remote cross-functional teams collaborate more effectively?

Nick: Yeah, good question. I'd be lying if I said I personally had oodles of experience in remote working. You know, even though it's been around for a fair time, I think we’re all still learning. Of course, our hand‘s been somewhat forced in recent years.

But I think that as a fully remote company, one of the first things that comes to mind when we’re putting the teams together is logistics. It's more about efficiency than anything. So we're thinking about geographical locations first and foremost. Obviously, the last thing we want to do is have a team that’s based in 12 different time zones that can't communicate. Of course, that’s not always possible – sometimes, you’ve got to work with what you've got.

I think one of the biggest points to get across is that what we’re doing is not necessarily anything new. I mean, agile-led companies have been doing this for years. But what is quite new is dealing with the dynamic of a team across the whole world. And someone one day has a bad internet connection. You know, someone doesn't get back to you for two days. And it builds. And that can rub.

It’s really important in these remote teams that we spend time trying to do social things if you can. What we're doing in our team right now (we haven't formally done it yet) is talking about funny themes we can come up with to name our fortnightly cycles or sprints. It gets conversation going. And that kind of camaraderie is really important.

Treating working relationships like a bank account

Fran: That’s a really brilliant way of bringing some humor or lightness to what could be a pretty heavy discussion.

Nick: Exactly. Think about the good old days when you could just go to someone in an office, tap them on the shoulder and say: ”Oh, hey! You know this new feature we’re adding here? With this button, one thing we didn't consider is the fact that if I'm a customer that’s only subscribed to this plan and this feature isn't available, then when I click this is going to do that and then that's going to happen.”

The big risk in this industry has existed since day one with digital products is that that kind of analytical thinking can often get lost in translation. And it happens every day, even face to face. Because this stuff’s really, really hard. And it multiplies by a significant factor when you're trying to do that remotely. You can only imagine what some of those conversations can be like when you have to try and type it into a Github ticket, trying to get your point across.

So taking that time to actually try and do those quick huddles, the quick catch-ups – it's good. It works. But it only works if you build up those relationships. A good coach that I had a few years back taught me something that stuck with me. He said, no matter what it is, if it's a professional or romantic relationship, you’ve got to treat it like a bank. He said, before you can take out from there you've got to put in.

So always think about that. Before you have to drop a bomb on someone and start demanding things – maybe you're stressed, maybe you're pressured – but before you have to start the heavyweight conversations, having those disagreements about how things should be done – make sure in the downtime you’ve built up to that. You've injected a little bit of understanding and camaraderie into that relationship. That means really making the most of those down periods and not calling on people just when they’re needed.

Fran: Yeah. It’s about getting to know people on that personal level in order to really grow that working relationship.

Nick: So this is one of the challenging things when you've got a group of people. Let’s say if marketing’s your thing, if product management’s your thing, you naturally move towards those people and those are the people that you can relate to you. It’s just easier. What’s not so easy is trying to understand someone who has a fundamentally different outlook and understanding of the industry that we’re in.

There are people that are passionate about the end result for the customer over everything else. We've got people who care deeply about the quality of the code – they want to do a good job and that's important. And then we’ve got people who care incredibly about the numbers and the business. You need all of those things but you have to work really hard to try and bring those things together. But it's worth the battle.

The power of a North Star metric

Fran: To continue on this thread of compatible teams and working together for a shared goal. Within your particular team, what are some ways of fostering a shared identity and sense of purpose amongst team members that you found worked particularly well?

Nick: So the team that I’m leading at the moment – we’re called Team Keep.

Our North Star metric is all about looking at the causes of attrition. What causes the customer or user in Timely to get so fed up and so frustrated that they eventually decide to cut ties? For me, it's a little bit more exciting than just churn – why did they leave it and let’s fix it.

But to answer your question. It all comes back to the vision and the goal. Because lots of companies talk about this with SaaS products – you’ve got to have the right vision. You’ve got to have the product strategy. You’ve got to give people clarity on exactly what it is you're doing. These things are really hard and they're always changing – you know, management will always change their mind. In fairness, they have to, because the market changes and plans change.

But the one thing that you can do inside these teams more than anything is you can attack that single source of engagement that applies to everyone. And that is the purpose – why are we here?

So for me in my role, one of the most important things as well as trying to assess and understand decision-making on a day-to-day basis – one thing that I hope I can add to the team more than anything is constantly reminding the team of this. Just don't go away, drop these messages in, send messages, touch base – let people know again why we’re doing it.

When smaller teams work better than big ones

Fran: I really like that. Moving on a little bit, our internal team is obviously expanding quite a lot. I mentioned before that we're in a stage of significant growth. There’s a statement out there that “the smaller the team, the better” – what’s your experience with this?

Nick: You could go online or read a thousand books about product delivery and product development and you'll find all sorts of opinions. There are even laws about it – I think seven is the perfect number for a product delivery team. I’m generally of the opinion that a smaller team does allow you more laser focus. The larger you get, the harder it is to set a vision and a goal for each cycle or sprint and bring everyone along for the journey.

It's not unlike me talking to you right now. It's easy to have your full attention because there's nothing else to distract you. You put four of us in the room and the chances of someone not being fully engaged increases hugely. How many people do you have to have in this room before someone starts looking at their phone?

There's all sorts of studies about this. The more people you put in a team, the harder it becomes to stick to your agenda. You end up finding the product person – the person who decides what we’re going to focus on – has to start sticking this feature in here or maybe we're going to go in this direction. Just to balance the load and that's the wrong way of looking at it, it's the wrong way of working.

If we’re talking about a product development or delivery team – or any team for that matter – you have to make sure that you've got all the necessary functions in that team. For instance, it's not ideal that we're in a situation where we’re still small enough that we can only really afford to have one frontend developer, one systems engineer and one backend developer on our team.

Because, as anyone who works in delivery and development knows, code review is a thing. So the situation we've got at the moment as a growing company is juggling the challenge of having to rely on another team, because you need to get another person to free up their time so they can review your code. Obviously that is a challenge because, by definition, that means that our cross-functional teams are not currently self-sufficient and obviously that's the holy grail. That’s the goal. But you’ve got to work with what you’ve got.

So my answer is this: obviously, the smaller you go, the easier it is to remain focused, build that engagement, get people on board and get people working better together. But not so small that the self-sufficiency of the team breaks down. That you don't have that person, that voice, in the room.

What’s the point in us putting out a feature if we’ve got no one representing Marketing, who have a key stake in making sure that our website, our branding and our go-to market strategy is being addressed? And we do currently have examples where we’re seeing the positives and negatives of having larger teams vs. smaller teams.

But it’s also about iteration. It's about making sure that we are open to shifting things around.

Establishing trust

Fran: As a leader of one of our cross-functional teams here at Memory, what are some ways you’ve gone about creating a learning culture within your team?

Nick: Firstly, you need to build that interactive culture. And the way that you do that is by driving engagement. It's about paying into the bank on a mental level. People watching this probably have all sorts of stories to tell about when they've been working in a team and someone will drop the question – “so what do we think about this as a team?” And then you get that tumbleweed moment, deadly silent.

And that's completely normal. It's important to recognize what that actually tells you, what that means. For me, what that means is that we haven't quite nailed the dynamic. We’ve still got some way to go. We haven't made everyone feel as empowered, or perhaps, that it's okay to jump in.

And also learning how people like to work as well. It's very hard if you do a team kickoff, and you say to everyone, how do you like to be contacted, what’s your communication style? Of course, it's going to be quite awkward at first, but the best way of learning is to just do it. See how people act and start adapting to them.

So for me, learning is about putting the money in the bank, the emotional bank. It's not something you have to overthink. I think it's something that comes a bit more naturally.

Making way for new ideas

Fran: I’ve really enjoyed our time today. As a part of the cross-functional team structure, it’s always beneficial to understand the logic behind its construction and how we can use it to truly benefit us, the product and our users. To wrap up, I’d love to know what you think the real key to being truly cross-functional is?

Nick: It basically comes down to this – are your assumptions being properly challenged? Let’s say you find yourself in a situation where a key decision is being made. If you find that goes through too easily, then I would argue that you’ve not sought enough resistance in your idea.

And I think that is critical, that’s a cornerstone of my thinking. I say this to my team all the time – I want to, I need to be challenged. In my role. I have to make difficult decisions sometimes. I have to make executive decisions and overrule people, but if I’m abusing that power and doing it for the sake of it, then we've already lost.

So I always say you must challenge me and I think that is the key to being cross-functional.

Fran: That’s great. Thank you so much for joining me today.  And thank you very much for watching. We hope you enjoyed this first taste of Inside Memory!

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