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As a leader, not only are you responsible for the success of your team, but you’re also responsible for your team’s ability to work well with others. But what does that even mean?
How do you avoid overhead while thoroughly building effective structures and processes? And how can you be sure you’re getting the most out of these relationships?
I’ve been building and supporting distributed teams across the globe for many years, several times taking organizations from less than a handful of teams to dozens. Here are some practical tips from the experience that my teams and I have gathered about successful cross-team collaboration along the way about:
- Creating an environment where collaboration can take place organically
- Supporting objectives, initiatives, projects, and tasks that require involvement from several teams
- Taking on an organizational issue or improvement area that doesn’t have a clear solution but may need cross-team involvement
Optimize for collaboration as a choice
Communication paths in organizations typically correlate with its software architecture (Conway’s Law). That’s why collaboration should be a choice, not a requirement, to avoid turning it into a blocker or building the same overreliance into your systems.
In order to lay the foundation for collaboration as a choice, teams should retain as much ownership as possible and:
- Own metrics (SLIs, SLOs, business KPIs) and the user experience for their area
- Own their services and be on-call for it
- Be staffed appropriately and have enough knowledge to be able to deliver on their metrics
- Have manageable context within their domain
- Not be dependent on other teams to accomplish their objectives
- Specify their interfaces (APIs), interaction modes, and expectations with other teams
While desirable, this ideal scenario isn’t always possible. In the case of my teams, we’re a globally distributed organization of 200+ engineers on 28 teams and we’re expanding quickly. In a fast-growing, rapidly-evolving organization, dependencies, collaboration needs, and joint goals exist.
Laying the foundation for successful cross-team collaboration
Leaders can lay a strong foundation for successful cross-team collaboration by defining organizational principles, investing in processes and partnerships, and using cross-team work as career growth opportunities for their team members.
Define organizational principles
A set of clearly defined organizational principles will go a long way towards guiding your teams’ interactions and will help them optimize for your business success. As your organization grows, not all teams will have the same purpose and mission: some may focus on direct business value delivery, others may focus on developer enablement or providing platforms and infrastructure. Clarify team types so you can clarify team interfaces and expectations for interaction models between teams. We transitioned to this model over time and it shapes our thinking about teams and how they operate.
At the same time, give teams room to define what their optimal team type and interaction model looks like.
‘A few months ago, we built an internal team to support other teams in frontend work and architecture. We did this through collaboration with and enablement for other teams. Initially, we were very specific and rigid about what the team’s members should do and how they should do it, which backfired: it limited the team instead of giving them ownership and allowing them to solve problems creatively.’ – Maggie Litton, Engineering Director, CircleCI
Be sure to adapt and experiment. Keep track of what’s working and what’s not. That way you’re able to iterate much faster, ultimately helping your teams accomplish their mission.
Define shared vs. individual components
As our engineering department has expanded, we’ve moved to a more streamlined engineering delivery process – but it’s important that each team decides how to implement day-to-day processes such as daily standup meetings, planning sessions, or collaboration. Every team has specific needs and they know how to best address them. Especially as you grow, it’s important to find a balance between standardization and ensuring the people closest to the problem can solve it in the best way.
Define incident response
Incident response is a classic example of cross-team collaboration. Put a clear incident response process with defined roles in place so that teams can focus on following it and bringing their expertise to the table.
Set up partnerships with non-engineering stakeholders
Because engineering impacts other functions of an organization, it’s important to regularly collaborate with the cohort of stakeholders who are also investing in these partnerships. Assign the desired collaboration a specific task, mission, or goal to help shape it, especially at first, and especially if you're remote, where people won't naturally bump into each other.
‘We have a designated Support Liaison for all teams in my domain at CircleCI. The folks in this role work with support teams, as well as with other teams across my domain to identify patterns and more systematic improvements.’ – Maggie Litton, Engineering Director, CircleCI.
Build relationships across teams
Relationships across teams support productive collaboration. Practices like regular pair programming rotations, interest groups, and engineering talks help distributed teams build those crucial relationships.
Utilize cross-team work as a career development investment
Cross-team work often comes with higher visibility and can help leaders grow by exposing them to higher degrees of ambiguity and help them build their profile and reputation. We regularly use delegating leadership for cross-team work as growth opportunities for our team members: it exposes them to higher degrees of ambiguity and complexity, requires adapting leadership styles, and helps them learn to lead more through influence than directly. This can be a great way for engineers to level up their leadership skills.
Making cross-team work a success
Here are concrete steps you can take once opportunities for cross-team collaboration arise to make them a success for all parties involved.
Whenever cases of cross-team work arise, make sure that ownership is clear to ensure there’s a clear drive and leadership.
Assign an established dynamic leader who is well versed in the needs of a project to help establish expectations, roles and responsibilities, areas of ownership, and work to organize output.
‘We’ve all been in the room with a newly established group of folks working on a project where there are either too many voices in the room or too few. Most often, too few voices result in passive leadership that does little to bring teams together or assure alignment with folks responsible for delivery.’ – Keiran Haggerty, Engineering Director, CircleCI
Define mutual success and land quick wins
One of the quickest ways to gain trust in new teams or a collection of teams is to get quick wins. Identify units of work that involve cross-team engagement and can be brought to resolution with little friction. This can be something as simple as agreeing on basic processes and how the teams will work together.
Drive toward alignment
Communicate strategy, direction, and relevant tactical details to your teams, and remember that it’s almost impossible to over-communicate these details. Always repeat what’s important. This helps people connect as humans and not solely rely on tools and checklists to get work done.
‘Regular check-in meetings, either with all involved or a representative from each team, are a good way to surface decisions, blockers, and successes, so that everyone is in sync and has a stake in how the project evolves.’ – Josh Assad, Engineering Manager, CircleCI
Set up cross-team visibility
As organizations grow quickly, transitioning from deep insight and close collaboration between teams towards more formalized models can pose a challenge. Setting up paths for visibility can go a long way.
When coordinating large lifts across teams, it's imperative to provide visibility into the work remaining and progress. This can be really simple, for example, a spreadsheet full of components to update. The key is to make it easy for anyone to find the work and track its uptake and completion.
Additionally, work in the open. As much as is reasonable, connect the broader team to all of the efforts going on at each level and demonstrate how the efforts across these spectrums reflect the betterment of the team or are driving towards their success criteria.
Review collaborations for continuous improvement
Use retrospectives to discuss and improve how your teams work together. Blameless incident reviews are also a great tool to help understand problems and drive solutions. Make sure they have outcomes, action items, and follow-through.
How you talk about learning, especially the way you discuss mistakes, matters. Make sure that you and your teams are actually learning: not by pointing fingers, but by asking really good questions with curiosity, and ensuring everyone feels safe speaking up.
Too often, we gloss over the obvious and miss moments in which we can illustrate the success of the team.
‘Make space for folks to acknowledge each other's efforts and highlight the progress and accomplishments for all to see.’ – Keiran Haggerty, Engineering Director, CircleCI
No matter the size of your organization, the ability to foster effective cross-collaboration is the most important tool in any leader’s toolkit. Optimize for collaboration as a choice. Define and clarify organizational, team, and individual goals. Prioritize cross-team visibility, and always leave room for continuous improvement.