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5 min read

Elevate agile and DevOps with cross-functional teams

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Harnessing the power of cross-functional teams to level-up agile and DevOps

While DevOps and agile techniques are successful and established methods for delivering applications and services, the force multipliers behind truly successful software delivery organisations are cross-functional teams.

So, why do you need to pay attention to them?

Cross-functional teams have the power to accelerate product delivery, reduce operational silos, make the most of diversity and inclusion, and enhance collaboration. Essentially, they can help you achieve delivery nirvana. In this post, we’ll explore cross-functional teams and their role in delivering software in a DevOps style. Let's get started.

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Cross-functional teams empower working in the style of agile and DevOps

A cross-functional team includes individuals from different disciplines, departments, and roles, each contributing unique expertise to achieve a shared goal or task. Specific roles could include developers, security engineers, testers and cloud engineers. Scrum masters and coaches also streamline the delivery process, guiding the team in applying agile and DevOps techniques and helping to clear impediments. All of this ensures the end product's functionality and quality.

This kind of collaborative setup brings together employees who might not typically work together closely and, indeed, may have different reporting lines and overall objectives within the organisation. Taking due care to ensure that cross-functional teams are correctly motivated in a way that may conflict with organisational structure is one of the biggest pain points of building cross-functional teams. But, carefully done, this fosters an environment ripe for innovation and ultimately leads to more successful projects.

This type of team collaboration is an essential method of problem-solving and encourages smarter decision-making. It leverages each team member's diverse skills and specialised knowledge but with a localised context. Close communication and collaboration around a shared goal allow the team to deliver concise and applicable solutions by removing the barriers usually involved in communicating across different disciplines. It encourages team members to understand multiple viewpoints, all of which are valid at some stage in the software delivery lifecycle and beyond, especially when developers and operational people work together. This increases shared understanding and knowledge, reduces errors and waste, and can become a force multiplier in allowing teams to innovate, experiment and ultimately deliver the best solutions. 

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Three benefits of cross-functional teams

Cross-functional teams make good business sense; they can provide an agile organisation with a competitive advantage. By smashing the barriers between departments and breaking down silos, your teams can unlock new ways to tackle problems and resolve conflicts. It means information can flow smoothly and promotes knowledge sharing, creativity, and innovation. All of this helps an organisation move faster and more efficiently. Let’s look at the benefits in more detail.

1. Faster, more effective problem-solving

You know the saying: two heads are better than one. In cross-functional teams, individuals bring their unique perspective to a problem, which means they also bring their experience and skills. A greater number of unique contributions means the problem can be solved faster.

2. Increases innovation and performance

Cross-functional work turns standard siloed thinking on its head and encourages ideas from all parts of the organisation. Team members will broaden their perspectives and boost problem-solving skills when they come into contact with people with diverse views, motives, and strengths. Such an environment can be a breeding ground for creativity and innovation. Through collaboration, it leads to intelligent and innovative solutions that cover all aspects of software delivery, which may have never surfaced while working in siloed teams. Furthermore, if team members move to another cross-functional team or return to their home departments, they often replicate the style of interaction and collaboration practised in cross-functional teams. It's an act that can potentially revolutionise the entire organisational structure.

3. Encourages knowledge sharing and collaboration

When team members collaborate in cross-functional teams, it makes it possible for them to gain an understanding of those neighbouring areas and learn and develop new skills from their fellow teammates, which will help shape future solutions better. This can foster an environment of continuous learning, as people coming together and sharing their expertise in different fields benefits everyone. Shared decision-making, regular team building, and adopting a shared language bridge the gap between siloed teams and foster a more collaborative and inclusive culture.

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IT leaders must support cross-functional teams

The support of IT leaders is a key factor in whether a cross-functional team is successful. It means actively supporting your teams by creating a culture of trust, respect, and accountability among team members and leaders, and acknowledging and fixing the reality that organisational reporting boundaries and metrics may need adjustment to empower cross-functional teams properly. You should encourage a psychologically safe and inclusive environment, allowing team members to voice their opinions, challenge assumptions, and propose alternatives. Empower your team members with enough autonomy and authority to make decisions, take risks, and experiment with new solutions. Look at the efficacy of these cross-functional teams not in traditional terms, but in terms of their ability to deliver reliable software. And motivate team members by recognising their contributions, celebrating their achievements, and rewarding their performance.

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How to build DevOps cross-functional teams

So, how do you recruit, train, and support cross-functional team members and leaders? Here are some key factors to consider when building a high-performing cross-functional team.

1. Identify a lighthouse project 

Starting to work in a cross-functional manner can be difficult for organisations used to working in a siloed way, and, like in the projects themselves, it may take a series of smaller adjustments to get the structure right. So, find a project that is small enough to adapt to these changes, but big enough to get noticed. Bringing together a cross-functional team of developers, testers, security, and operations people is already a big change for many, so try to find a project that can—somewhat ironically—be conceivably delivered without too many other external dependencies.

2. Choose the right people

Bear in mind that a successful first cross-functional team will convert many to the technique. So, choose the people who can help shape the team and then evangelise these techniques to others. Effective cross-functional teams include people who bring a diverse mix of skills, personalities, and expertise. Generally, people who work well in this environment tend to be flexible, adaptable, collaborative, and/or open-minded. Other things to consider include the balance between team size and composition—do you have the correct representation?

3. Training and support

To ensure your team members are fully prepared, you can train and support them in communication, brainstorming, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, and feedback. Give your teams the online collaboration tools, including work tracking systems, project management software, virtual whiteboards, source code, and continuous integration tools they need.

4. Monitor and evaluate

As a leader or manager, it’s crucial to help your team keep track of progress and view this in the context of delivering reliable, effective, and excellent software rather than through the lens of a siloed specialist team. Look to the DORA metrics for ways of measuring the effectiveness of a cross-functional team. Provide an environment where goals, deliverables, and any other challenges can be discussed openly and safely, and provide feedback and guidance where necessary.

5. Retain or rotate team members

Team members in cross-functional teams have expanded their knowledge, network, skills, and experience—making them valuable assets to your organisation. Perhaps they are now happy working in this cross-functional team, or perhaps everyone benefits from a rotation into another team where their evangelism for the technique can help transform others. Retain these employees by offering them development opportunities, mentoring programs, and paths to growth and promotion.  

Adopting DevOps and agile is a journey, and getting team shapes and sizes correct is crucial. Accept that this may be an iterative process and set yourself up for success. By harnessing the power of cross-functional teams, you can improve IT performance, customer satisfaction, and business results. Sound good? 

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We can help with tailored, detailed guidance on nurturing and managing teams in your organisations. Get in touch to find out how we can help.

About the authors

Matt Saunders

DevOps Lead in the Office of the CTO at The Adaptavist Group

Matt Saunders is the DevOps Lead in the Office of the CTO at The Adaptavist Group. After being trusted with a root password as a Sysadmin long ago, he now helps teams make the best use of people, processes, and technology to deliver software efficiently and safely.