Stop Collaborative Dysfunction Across Product Teams



Sally Grisedale

Software development today is a collaborative process across a broad range of groups (XFN), including Data Science, Artificial Intelligence, User Research, Product Management, Engineering, Product Design, Design Ops., Architecture, Program Management, Content Strategy, Product Marketing, Network Operations, Marketing Communications, and Legal, to name just a few.

In addition to the requirement of organizational collaboration, the pressure to ‘move fast’ is always present. ‘Done is better than perfect’ is the famous maxim by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Businesses need to innovate faster to keep growing their market reach.

The tension between optimal collaboration XFN and the need for speed creates various challenges for individuals, teams, and especially their leaders.

Symptoms of Dysfunction Across Product Teams

  • Individuals may experience a lack of trust and accountability and feel more significant conflict and stress when goals are unclear or change on a dime.
  • When roles, ownership, and accountability are unclear, teams can become less efficient, less coordinated, and less supportive of one another.
  • New leaders and leaders of teams that are ‘in service’ of other teams – large, influential, or revenue-driving teams – may not be at the table when critical decisions are made.
  • This can lead to the perpetuation of silos of domain expertise
  • The Arbinger Institutes’ “Leadership and Self Deception” book has shown that silos lead to individuals feeling “self-justified for bad behavior, like exaggerating other people’s faults or inflating their virtue.” This, in turn, can produce negative sentiment among teams:
    • User research takes too much time
    • Designers work independently from engineering
    • Engineers build UI’s for the designers to clean up after the fact

Creating high-quality work under these conditions becomes very difficult. According to a Harvard Business Review (HBR) study of leading corporations, 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional.

Where to Put Your Leadership Focus?

Without a doubt, the need for speed and cross-functional collaboration is challenging.

  • Should you focus on building your team and reaching your goals?
  • Or should you focus on building relationships with cross-functional partners to support better collaboration?

These goals don’t need to be mutually exclusive.

If you experience collaboration problems like those in your team, consider forming an alliance with your XFN partners and carefully craft your working relationship.

By definition, an alliance is a union or association formed for mutual benefit between partners based on an affinity, typically of shared interests. Additionally, a partnership empowers each party to declare where their boundaries lie and how to work with them optimally.

How to Build Alliances

An alliance works best when you begin the process with a conversation and ask open-ended questions:

  • What challenges do you face with your team?
  • What currently works well for your team and communications?
  • What excites you and your team about the work?
  • How was the experience when our teams last worked together? Do you have suggestions for improvement?
  • What are the optimal conditions for our teams to work together effectively?
  • What would you like to know about my team and me?
  • How will we structure mutual accountability?
  • What is the best response when a problem arises between our teams or us?
  • What is the best way to share complex information with you?
  • Will you continue to look at how we work together and give me ongoing feedback?

No one likes to feel like an item on your ‘to-do’ list. For this alliance conversation to work, you must listen without interruption, without jumping to conclusions or problem-solving. Most importantly, be genuinely curious about the person and what they say. Avoid jumping in to fill an awkward silence; give the other person time to complete their thoughts.

“No matter what we do on the outside, people respond to how we feel on the inside,” The Arbinger Institutes, “Leadership and Self Deception” book.  Creating an open and collaborative conversation to launch an alliance will allow the best of both people’s “insides” to connect with the other.

The Benefits of Building Alliances

When we join a company, we bring our skills, expertise, and expectations of how things should work. In a fast-paced, collaborative environment, it can feel rough until we acclimate to the culture and build relationships with others on whom we can depend. The value of designing an alliance with other people is time well spent and will create results that reflect well on you over time.

  • People see that you value them for who they are, not what they can do for you
  • You earn the trust of others
  • Your positive behavior contributes to a better work environment
  • You can ask for support in times of need from your powerful alliances
  • You are fully productive and engaged with clarity about the work that is informed by the work of others
  • By championing others, your perceived value increases exponentially.

How to Apply This

Try this experiment. Ask someone the three questions below, whether an employee, a peer, a cross-functional team member, your boss, a date, or a stranger in line at the airport:

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What gets you (and your team) excited about what you do?
  • What do you truly want?

Then, could you take a step back and assess where you are in the conversation?

  • Have you created a connection with this person?
  • Do you understand them more thoroughly than you did before?
  • Did they gain insights into themselves and how you communicate with them?

Congratulations, you’re on your way to tremendous success as an XFN leader!

Let me know how this helps you connect with key people in your work and home environment. Good luck!


This article was first published at the Design and Innovation, Design Thinking conference proceedings on March 29th, 2019.

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