We recently abandoned our desks in favor of sunshine and beach views in Crete, where we brought the entire business of over 200 employees together in one place.

Colleagues from our offices in London, the U.S., Cape Town, and further afield have been working together in cross-functional teams for the best part of a year already, but here, they had the opportunity to work faster, face-to-face.

We originally kicked off this initiative with projects that lasted just a week, or for very quick software builds. This was a period of trial and error, but eventually, we were able to start new cross-functional teams with an ambitious focus on lengthy, complex projects. We now have 11 teams across the whole business, each with a goal involving specific solutions or functions.

We used our latest getaway as an opportunity to review the initiative, setting out to establish the pros and cons of cross-functional teams and offer advice to other businesses considering the challenge for themselves.

This article contains opinions from our own employees (interviewed in Crete), that all-important list of pros and cons, as well as advice on how to implement cross-functional teams in your own business.

Can a mix of disciplines help achieve your goals?

Many faces from Zappi offices around the world have formed their own opinions of where we are, what’s next, and what we’ve learned. These are their views.

“Cross-functional teams become organisms” Simba Nyatsanga, Software Engineer

Looking outside of Zappi, any tech company (Tesla, Apple, etc) have cross-functional teams to build software with a central focus on User Experience. It’s a more efficient use of your resources and captures a more diverse collection of ideas: design, engineering, and clients come together. Cross-functional teams become organisms rather than a set of mechanics.

“These teams are a crucial ingredient of Zappi’s success” Babita Earle, Head of Partnerships

All organizations have cross-functional aspects. We’re taking it to a different level. When we come together in a place like Crete, we’re all focused, we’re all together, and we have easier access to various disciplines. These teams are a crucial ingredient of Zappi’s success.

How do you embed cross-functional working on a day-to-day basis? Do it, try it, experiment, and build a case study out of it. My responsibility is in making sure the lens of partnerships is infused in all cross-functional teams. As an individual, I need to think about how others will be impacted by what I do. So think about where you fit in the overall ecosystem.

“It’s hard. It’s not simple.” Richard Spenceley, Solution Owner and Scrum Master

Being honest is vital. If something isn’t working, say it quickly. You can solve problems fast that way. It’s hard. It’s not simple. And it’s not going to work for everyone. It’s a complete mindset change. Try it on a small scale first – like we did. We had our company offsites, which were always cross-functional experiments. It’s not static – you need to be agile, and willing to constantly tweak and analyze.

“You get to really learn about what someone else does” Jason Seraphin, Client Excellence

We’re looking to become the biggest platform in the industry. When you put us all together – experts in their own functions – that’s where the magic happens. You get to really learn about what someone else does and how it affects the company, and you can make really agile decisions based on that. Dive in and represent your function in the best way possible.

“I’ve learned to tailor how we communicate ideas”Donovan Kennedy, Head of UX

You can never have too much context. From a development perspective, I’ve learned to tailor how we communicate ideas to the rest of the business – to talk about what things do rather than what things are

Sometimes it can feel like we are individuals rather than representatives of our functions. Without clear communication, you run the risk of creating multiple teams unaware of each others’ initiatives; swapping vertical silos for horizontal ones. The next stage of the model – a sort of hashtag visualization – is essential in ensuring we’re as efficient as possible. We are working on that.

“Applying different contexts helps put the customer first”Mando Kapeso, Software Engineer

Maintaining communication is tough. Because I am based in Cape Town and we work with people from other offices, we struggled for an ideal time to meet. But our scrum master helped us find an overlap and it’s been working out. Sometimes, we need to stay a bit longer, but it gives a fresh view of how to tackle certain issues. Applying different contexts and different mindsets helps put the customer first and cover all bases.

“Our learnings will flow through the whole business” Tanner St. Pierre, ‘Bug Hunter’

The advantage of being part of a cross-functional team is in bringing different perspectives together, in one room, and around specific solutions or features. If all goes well, my team will probably grow and our learnings will flow through the whole business. Perhaps we’ll move on, branch out, and do more work across all of Zappi’s Solutions.

“Teams need to be honest with each other” Daniela Muţ, Software Engineer

It’s much easier to express problems directly, rather than by creating JIRA tickets and going through various processes, backlogs, and so on. To achieve success, teams need to be honest with each other and open to challenges. But be careful: don’t make your cross-functional teams too big, or else it’s difficult to keep so many people focussed on the same topic for a long time.

Are Cross-functional Teams As Good As We Think?

Your business might be thinking about how it can adopt the practice of cross-functionality to improve workflow – which is a great sign. It means you’re working for an agile, forward-thinking organization.

But, it may not be immediately obvious if you’re likely to experience any negative outcomes. So what are the methods you and your colleagues should employ to avoid problematic blockers to success?

Despite our general enthusiasm for cross-functionality, we can quite easily distill the views of people within our own business into two categories: pros and cons.

Pros

Inclusivity: Ensuring your cross-functional teams are diverse, with colleagues from every department in the business, can open up new ways of thinking. Also consider balancing genders, ages, races, and backgrounds.

Honesty: If your cross-functional teams aren’t courageous in their honesty, miscommunications may become larger problems later down the line. Nip these in the bud early and tackle problems head-on.

Strategy: You’re bringing together busy colleagues who have other jobs to do, so it’s important your cross-functional team has a clear set of goals and a straightforward method of reviewing its progress.

Efficiency: Being able to talk regularly with people outside of your department is a clear advantage over sending emails and raising tickets. That said, patience is a virtue. It will take time to find out how your team works most effectively.

Cons

Competitiveness: In cross-functional teams, colleagues come together from different areas of the business, with different priorities, and different modes of working. People should give ample time for one another to express themselves and respect any opposing views.

Sailing: Some team members may lack passion or interest. Rather than plain sailing (and achieving nothing), it is best they are honest about it and make better use of their time. They may find or create another cross-functional team that’s a better fit for them.

Silos: The purpose of cross-functional teams is to avoid working in silos. However, if there’s more than one team in an organization, it’s important they are communicative with the wider business – or else a new set of silos can emerge.

❌Timing: If you work with team members who operate from different offices around the world, it’s important to schedule meetings suitable for both time zones. This can be frustrating to organize but is usually constructive in the long run.

If at first you don’t succeed, try try again

If you are seeking to implement cross-functional teams within your own business, start small. Trial the idea for a week or so and for small projects. Learn from your successes and failures, and gradually increase the importance of cross-functionality.

Without patience and communication, you’ll struggle to make much progress. So remember to hear everybody out and ensure an atmosphere of courageous honesty. Good luck!


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A James Hodges

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A James Hodges

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