How one tech start-up embraced cross-functional working and thrived

By Sa’ed Anabtawi, Product Director, WOLF Qanawat

In the ever-evolving world of tech start-ups, staying ahead of the game requires constant agility, adaptation and innovation. Our London-based tech firm, WOLF, comprises of WOLF Qanawat, the British-made audio entertainment communities app for the MENA market, and WOLF Technologies, which builds online community platforms for external partners. 

We recently underwent a transformation that reshaped our entire approach to team collaboration, sparking a newfound sense of ownership, focus, and unity. 

Before the change, teams operated in silos which didn’t deliver for us an optimum, unified focus. Located in various parts of the world, each department worked independently across product and engineering areas. There were numerous higher-level goals, but far less specific group-wide KPI objectives, and the absence of dedicated product owners got in the way of us realising our absolute full potential.

Driven by our commitment to meet business targets, foster ownership and responsibilities among team members, and achieving rapid delivery, we embarked on a journey of transformation, in which I took the lead, surrounded by a wonderful group of people.

The team transitioned from isolated, compartmentalised teams to cross-functional squads, and has seen significant product developments since. Here’s a breakdown of why we revolutionised our team structures, the benefits of undergoing this change, and what other SMEs can learn from our experience.  

Time for change

It became clear to us that we needed to change our team structures and move to cross-functional squads to improve efficiency, create better internal communication, and create a better sense of ownership for specific projects and tasks. 

For instance, one particular challenge we faced as a digital tech firm was that in technology, Backend (server) and Frontend (mobile client) teams naturally tend to operate in isolation. The issue often revolves around the design of application programming interfaces (APIs) for the mobile client. When APIs are designed in isolation, they may not align optimally with the specific needs and what would work best for the mobile client. 

Consequently, when the mobile client receives the API, it becomes apparent that changes and optimisation is required. This realisation initiates a cycle of back-and-forth adjustments to refine the APIs, ensuring they are well-suited and efficient for the mobile client. This iterative process can lead to delays, increased communication loads, and potential inefficiencies in the overall development workflow. Hence we embraced cross-functional squads to tackle challenges like this one and make our business more productive. 

The results

Embracing the change in our team structures has delivered some outstanding results for our business. Our delivery process has undergone a remarkable transformation, achieving improved speed and efficiency. Tasks that traditionally took approximately six to eight months of development time are now seamlessly executed within a mere one to three month timeframe. 

This heightened pace not only accelerates project timelines but also empowers us to iterate rapidly. The ability to iterate swiftly enables us to respond dynamically to evolving requirements and incorporate feedback promptly, fostering a more agile and responsive development cycle. This enhanced efficiency represents a significant leap forward in our delivery capabilities, propelling us towards more streamlined and efficient project timelines.

This enhanced efficiency has also helped the brand to quickly develop in a number of key ways, including re-branding from ‘WOLF’ to ‘WOLF Qanawat’, to make it more appealing to Arabic-speaking communities in the MENA market.

Other key developments include smoothly launching a VR experience for our customers, quickly followed by the introduction of an AI virtual assistant called ‘Yasmine’. ‘Yasmine’ is an ideal virtual ‘customer representative’ for the app’s users, as AI virtual assistants are proving very popular among younger consumers, like those who form WOLF Qanawat’s user base.

Patience is key

To any other SMEs thinking about moving from isolated, departmentalised teams to cross-functional squads, my advice is that you need to have patience and instil trust in the structure of a cross-functional squad. Presenting the value behind this change is crucial for the team’s understanding and commitment. It’s important to acknowledge that realising the optimal value from a cross-functional squad will take time; building effective teamwork and synergy requires a few months of collaborative effort. 

Patience is key as the team navigates through the initial phases of adjustment and gradually refines its collaborative dynamics. By emphasising the long-term benefits and instilling confidence in the team, you pave the way for sustained success and cohesive collaboration in the future.

The value of communication

The other piece I can offer is to avoid a lack of clear communication during the transition to cross-functional squads. Clearly articulate the reasons behind the change, the benefits, and the expected outcomes to ensure everyone is on the same page. Do not ignore team input and feedback – involving them in decision-making fosters a sense of ownership and commitment to the new structure. 

Celebrating and recognising progress is important, boosts morale and reinforces the positive aspects of the transition. It’s essential to have the right tools in place to help ease communications and collaboration between cross-functional squads such as Slack, JIRA, Miro or Figjam. 

Our successful transition to cross-functional squads was driven by a visionary leadership team that recognised the value of change. The unwavering belief and support from our development director, head of delivery, and their teams, coupled with their patience, were crucial factors in making the transition both enjoyable and successful. Their commitment to fostering a collaborative culture has had a lasting positive impact on our organisation.

Greater integration in future

Our existing cross-functional squad comprises essential roles such as Scrum Master, Product Owner, UX/UI specialists, Frontend (clients, web and mobile) and Backend developers, QA, and Data Analysts. To further enrich the collaborative environment, we aim to extend the involvement to include members from the Marketing and Community departments. 

By integrating expertise from these areas, we seek to create a holistic and well-rounded squad that not only excels in technical aspects but also incorporates strategic marketing insights and community engagement perspectives. This expansion aligns with our commitment to fostering a comprehensive, cross-disciplinary approach within our squads, ensuring a more integrated and collaborative working environment.

Take a unique approach  

Ultimately, while the concept of cross-functional squads can be universally beneficial, it’s essential to recognise that every organisation has its unique characteristics, culture, and dynamics. Tailoring the implementation of cross-functional squads to align with the specific needs and nuances of your organisation is crucial for success. 

Acknowledging and understanding an organisation’s unique traits allows for a more thoughtful and customised approach to cross-functional collaboration. Factors such as organisational culture, existing workflows, and the nature of projects can influence how cross-functional squads are structured and integrated.