Over the past couple of years, I have become obsessed with the dynamics of work teams, reading such seminal texts as Teaming, The Wisdom of Teams, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Team of Teams. It is from works such as these that we learn the importance of psychological safety, trust and accountability, and the distinct and evolving role of leaders.
And while each advocates for small, cross-functional teams as the heart of how work gets done, I’ve yet to find someone address what I consider to be among the biggest barriers to collaboration within these teams—the distinct cultural values of each function.
The function/discipline I can speak most for is design (including UX research and content design). I have conducted numerous sessions with design teams to identify the values they hold most dear, and inevitably among them are compassionate concerns such as: (all are drawn from actual team charters I facilitated):
- Empathy (more on that in a moment)
Though I have not conducted similar exercises for other functional teams, having worked with product managers, engineers, marketers, sales people, etc., I do not believe these values would rank. I’m not saying other function are heartless—I’m just saying that design teams wear their hearts on their sleeves.
And the point I want to make is less about compassion specifically, and more generally that every function has its own culture, values, intellectual foundation, and norms, and those fundamental characteristics lead to distinct ideals and differing behaviors.
Related sidebar about empathy.
In literally every team charter exercise I facilitate, when we identify the values of the design team, “empathy” emerges as core.
Every time, I implore the team to reconsider, as “empathy” has become clichéd. And every time, the team, while acknowledging this, says that they need to keep the value, as no other function in their organization demonstrates the value, and so it is key to their identity in relationship to others.
Sidebar to the sidebar:
I think that’s kind of fucked.
And when we create cross-functional teams, we typically just throw people together from all these different backgrounds, and do nothing to help them find common ground. Given that, we should be surprised when teams perform well, instead of disappointed when they do not.
I’m realizing there are a number of different directions this line of thought could lead me:
- How designers are marginalized because the compassionate values core to their identity are marginalized within businesses
- Rituals for establishing teams that enable common ground that engenders trusting relationships
- The schizophrenia/cognitive dissonance we ask of folks to be a good ‘team player,’ which requires some degree of sacrifice and compromise that isn’t every acknowledged
In later posts, I may pursue some of these threads. At this point, I simply want to shine a light on the very real and impactful influence of distinct cultures within teams, and how those must be acknowledged and addressed if we want cross-functional teams to thrive.