product innovation blog

When Disciplines Don’t Mix

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Although most organizations understand the benefits of cross-functional teams, we still find that most project teams are not fully cross-functional, especially between product management and engineering. Some product development processes encourage fiefdoms, resulting in disciplines that don’t mix well.  (Please note: some companies refer to product management as upstream marketing and downstream marketing as product launch and support).

This is especially evident with companies that have a phased and gated process where responsibility shifts by phase. Product management owns the early phases of the process, while engineering owns development and verification & validation (V&V) and then marketing owns the launch phase.  (Or even worse, there are no early-phased activities executed and the process starts at the ‘development’ phase!) This creates a structural process ownership issue within the organization.

Stage and Gate 9-29-15

We were asked by a VP of Engineering if we thought engineering should be involved with product management in the early phases. At first, we thought it may be a trick question because the answer was quite evident to us.  We responded that engineering should definitely be involved early in the process, because a lot can be lost in translation between the customer and engineering, especially in early prototyping.

Sometimes, we hear that engineering doesn’t want to involve other disciplines in product development, especially in organizations with high turn-over in product management or marketing.  There is a tendency to assign very ‘green’, inexperienced people to the project teams, which can drag down team performance.

What’s the solution?

These internal organizational dynamics are difficult to address, especially for larger companies.  At a basic level some of these dynamics can be resolved with the reorganization of new product development activities to force cross-functional collaboration.   These fiefdoms can also be breached by assigning a single owner to the process, instead of three separate owners from different departments.

As we mentioned before, constant turn-over in some departments, especially in product management, makes it difficult for members of the team to build basic product development competencies.  To support building competencies for product management, we are proponents for building a professional product management career track, similar to a professional technology career track that you find in technology companies.

Do you have any additional insights on why disciplines don’t mix, and have you found any solutions?

 

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One comment on “When Disciplines Don’t Mix

  • I believe this is correct, at least on the surface. In my experience, functions become compartmentalized for reasons other than the specific development project. How departments are measured, contradicting goals and objectives, etc., all lead to department self preservation. Based on metrics, departments can be “successful”, but the business can fail, leaving everyone scratching theirs heads as to why. This is common for small companies up through multi-billion dollar ones.

    In my experience the underlying cause is culture and thereby, leadership. In a recent company, seasonal development processes were not delivering on time or financially – very common. The cure was creating a cross-functional team that did in fact work collaboratively – but not at first. I find, as you state, that cross functional teams do not know what to do instinctively, nor is collaboration a natural or easy process for anyone. The evolution took three rounds of development and the “team” environment transitioned from requiring direction – to – management – to – self leadership.

    At first, a single person needs to take ownership. The the key is providing prescriptive guidance (direction phase) at first, then encouraging and enabling members to engage at increasingly higher and more cross-functional levels as they progress. During the management phase, the person in charge, needs to be an enabler and begins to manage the team instead of individuals. Dialogue is key, communicating that success is measured as a whole instead of by department, and individuals are accountable to each other and the team. We were very fortunate to have right team, they became self-managing and I transitioned to servant leader to assist them in achieving development goals project goals. It was the incremental successes that drove the team.

    Recognition and reward must also support this environment – win and lose as a team. The end result was 30% shorter time to market, development costs lowered by 25% and contribution margin increased by 7%. Quality, as determined by consumers, also increased dramatically.

    It is my experience creating a cross-functional workflow is not easy and it cannot be forced, it has to be taught and guided. It is a process to get there, not a single event. Leadership must endorse and support it, and the right culture has to be created in order to be successful. Of course this requires knowledge transfer, training, coaching, mentoring and all the things businesses are generally hesitant to spend the time or effort on, but those that do, can really accelerate their development with higher success rates.

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