At larger companies, working with product teams other than your own is often an inevitability. But cross-team collaboration can also be challenging—unlike working within your product team, there’s little organic overlap with other teams. You’re often sitting in different locations, sometimes spanning different offices or even timezones. You have different meetings and stakeholders, roadmaps and priorities.
Working on the design system for Facebook’s Ads and Business products has lent our team a wealth of experience working closely with other teams. From these partnerships, I’ve learned a lot about what makes an effective collaboration, and what can turn a difficult relationship into a productive one. Below, I’ve tried to distill the three biggest behavioural changes that can lead to more effective working relationships.
1. Start With (And Maintain) Alignment
No working relationship can succeed without clear expectations set on all sides from the beginning. The problem is, these expectations are rarely explicitly set. The downside of this can rear its head anywhere between days and months into a project: at some point, someone will feel let down, confused, or short-sold.
To avoid souring a partnership between teams, it’s important to set clear expectations early on in collaborations. Every cross-team collaborative project should have at least one kickoff/alignment meeting. The purpose of this meeting is to set the goals, responsibilities, and timelines for project deliverables, and come to agreements about which investments come from which team(s).
It’s important that all cross-functional (XFN) representatives are present in this meeting. One thing I’ve often seen is designers from different teams working together on a project, only for them to find that neither of them can find the engineering resources on their team to bring their project to life. Involving Product and Engineering functions early can help avoid disappointment in the long-run by making sure that the work is accounted for on someone’s roadmap.
At the end of this meeting (or even in advance of it), a project brief outlining the goals, responsibilities, and milestones/timeline should be produced. This document will be the “contract” between the two parties; it should be referred to at times of conflict to ensure both parties are sticking to their responsibilities, as well as regularly checked to make sure deliverables are on target.
You may find that the terms of this contract change over time, and that’s ok! The important thing is that when responsibilities shift, that shift should be acknowledged, and your agreements with one another updated. Make your expectations explicit and demand the same from your partners.
2. Understand Each Other’s Universe
Imagine yourself standing in the carriage of a moving train, with a cup of coffee (or tea, if you’d prefer) on the tray table in front of you. Though you may be aware that the train is in motion, the drink in front of you appears to be at rest—until, that is, you pick it up to take a sip. Now imagine a friend, waiting at a train station that your train will pass through. To your friend, you, the coffee, and the entire train pass by them very quickly; whereas the station remains at rest (or at least one would hope). This thought exercise illustrates the idea of relative motion, a concept we can also apply to our work with partners.
When we meet with people throughout our day-to-day, it’s easy to forget that we’re getting only a tiny glimpse into their universe. You have marginal overlap with your peers, but they have a whole host of other priorities and things on their mind—as do you! With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why what’s important to us may sometimes seem less important to our partners: often it’s because it is.
There are a handful of things you can do to better understand the perspective (and priorities) of your partners. Sharing one another’s roadmaps can be an effective way to understand what’s important to each team, and to be able to adjust the expectations for each team accordingly.
Another useful tactic I’ve suggested to designers is to attend one another’s design critiques. Attending each other’s design critiques can be a really effective way to not only better understand the product spaces your parter teams are tackling, but also to understand the cognitive biases that might be present in collaboration. It’s likely that your partners will always have their key customer in mind when working with you—and you’ll be guilty of the same! Being able to recognise these biases in the wild can help ensure you’re designing and building solutions that benefit both parties, rather than just one or the other.
The key theme of this strategy is that knowing what’s important to your partners will make you a more effective partner. Your collaboration with other teams should never be a zero-sum game: if you’re willing to ask “How can we help you achieve your goals?”, the likelihood is that they’ll be more willing and able to help you with yours.
3. Communicate Early and Often
While being physically co-located with the people you’re working with is ideal, it’s often unrealistic or impossible. Especially when working across offices or timezones, communicating early and often with your partners is a critical way to ensure productive collaboration.
Not only does this mean having regularly scheduled working sessions with each other—ideally a shared design critique and weekly/daily standup (other commitments permitting)—but at the individual level, communicating decisions as they happen is an under-valued and easy way to maintain alignment.
What this looks like is messaging your partners at some important moments. When you begin a new design exploration, or have an idea for a future feature, or had an offshoot conversation with a stakeholder, it’s important to over-communicate these micro interactions by sending your peer(s) a quick message. While it can be tempting to “save it” for your next meeting, these tiny decisions and interactions add up—you’re likely to forget everything that happened, or make consequent decisions that are bigger and might leave your partner feeling blindsided.Being a trustworthy and effective partner means showing your work and thinking out loud. Do this early and often enough, and it will become second nature.
I hope the strategies above can help make your cross-team partnerships more effective! We’ve employed them throughout a number of partnerships on the Business Design Systems team at Facebook, and much like financial investing, the best time to implement them is yesterday: the second best time is today.
I’ve drawn from a handful of influences in these tactics, but two really good resources I’d recommend for further reading are:
- Crucial Conversations. The tools in this book and training session are super applicable to all the points above, and extend beyond your professional communication.
- Collaborating With The Enemy (or its fantastic full title, “Collaborating With The Enemy: How To Work With People You Don’t Agree With Or Like Or Trust”) is a great reference for tactics on how to drive alignment between parties with differing interests. Even if the teams you collaborate with have totally overlapping goals and interests, the strategies in this book can still be helpful for effective collaboration!