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The Lean UX Anti-Pattern: Cross-Functional Silos

This post is a brief follow-on to a great post by Tristan Kromer in which he describes what he calls the Lean Waterfall. In the lean waterfall, large organizations still maintain their silos (e.g. design, engineering and marketing). Within each silo, they practice agile and lean. However, between the silos there are still handoffs and large specification documents. As such, in the end what you have is an organization that looks like the graph below; with each departmental silo claiming to be lean, but at the super-ordinate level the organization is still functioning as a waterfall.
The solution to this problem is to create small cross-functional teams that are tasked with solving customer problems via products or services. This concept is well articulated in Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden’s book Lean UX. A cross-functional team contains members from each department/silo. In this context, designers are part of the same team with engineers and marketers. Cross-functional teams are great because they limit handoffs between departments and allows teams to fully practice lean as they work together during the same build-measure-learn sprints
The value of cross-functional teams cannot be denied. They are a significant step forward that every organization should take in order to innovate and learn fast. However, the creation of cross-functional teams has a paradoxical side-effect that might recreate a different version of the problem that they were designed to solve. At a recent Lean Coffee event at Pearson, a colleague raised concerns about being in a cross-functional team, but being unaware of what is happening in other cross-functional teams in the organization.

It struck me that as we have removed the handoffs in the waterfall system by creating cross-functional teams; we have inadvertently created a different type of silo; the product silo or knowledge silo. When there is no need for handoffs, the cross-functional team can become insular and separated from other cross-functional teams in the organization. As the team works to meet its goals and succeed, insular behaviour can become the norm. This can become a particular challenge if the team is cohesive and works well together.

And yet, there is a value in having cross-pollination between cross-functional teams. There are many lessons being learned everyday within cross-functional teams about customers, markets, business environments, implementation challenges and best practice. Indeed, one cross-functional team may be struggling with implementing Lean UX, and within the same organization another cross-functional team may have a simple solution for that exact challenge. But unless there is a platform for these teams to connect, the organization has essentially created cross-functional silos!At the Lean Coffee, some solutions to this challenge were proposed:

1) Secondment: Individual team members can join other cross-functional teams for brief periods (e.g. one week), to gain a different experience and also share whatever lessons they have learned from working with their own team. This can be a good way to cross-pollinate best practice and also learn what other teams are working on.

2) Rotation: At the end of each project, cross-functional teams are split up and new configurations of team members are put together for working on new projects. This is again a good way to cross-pollinate best practice. However, it has the draw back that teams have to go through the process of getting accustomed to working with each other on every new project. There is a value in long-term relationships that may be lost with too much rotation.

3) Team of Teams: This practice is based on the notion of scrum of scrums. In this practice, each team designates one member, as an ambassador to participate is a daily/weekly meetings with ambassadors from other teams. The ambassador role can be rotated, or assigned to the product owner. My preference is for rotating the ambassador role so that each team member gets a chance to learn what is going on in the organization first-hand.

4) Demo Day: Once a week/month various teams get together for a show-and-tell meeting where they demo the stuff they are working on and speak about any challenges they are facing. Teams can then give each other feedback and offer to help each other with specific resources, knowledge or talent.

Depending on the company and the nature of the work it does, some of the above solutions may not work for you. However, it is important to recognize the challenge of cross-functional silos and tackle it head-on. Bespoke solutions can then be created for your specific context. Please share other solutions to cross-functional silos that you have either implemented or seen in other organizations. Looking forward to your comments.

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