Teaming your way through economic turbulence

Thomas Peham, VP of Marketing at enterprise CMS Storyblok, left,  discusses how reorganising the way your team operates can create efficiencies, innovation and flexibility 

Generally, businesses are divided up into departments. Marketers sit with marketers, and developers huddle with other developers. Marketing is in charge of marketing, the development team is in charge of…development. It’s simple and, because of the obvious advantages, it has served businesses well for the past few centuries. However, the world of work has changed markedly over the last few years with the advent of hybrid working, adoption of new technology such as AI and a range of economic conditions that haven’t been seen in many countries since the 1970s. There is huge pressure on many businesses to improve efficiency, adapt to rapidly moving technology and drive innovation to remain competitive. This begs the question, should we look again at how businesses are organised to fulfil these goals?

The chief drawbacks of a departmental approach to organisation is the risk of knowledge being siloed. This is no small thing now that nearly every business function is fuelled by data. Silos create a host of problems including bottlenecks, single points of failure and reduced innovation. 

The alternative is ‘multidisciplinary cross functional teams’. Multidisciplinary teams are, as the name suggests, departments made up of people with a wide variety of skills. Cross-functional means that responsibilities, knowledge and aims go right across the business. 

The most straightforward example of how this works in practice is within marketing. Communication has become incredibly complex — more channels, more tools, digital transformation, an unprecedented amount of data and higher expectations. Websites are expected to provide a host of personalised experiences. All of this requires a huge number of skills working in tandem: data science, security, IT, digital marketing, copywriting, customer service, development and much more.

Juggling all of these different skills found in different departments with different goals leads to a lot of headaches and, in some cases, conflicts. Marketers make requests of developers to complete an action immediately but it falls to the back of the queue because the developers have their own priorities. Data scientists may provide inputs that don’t include the commercial insights that marketers need for strategies. Everyone forgets to inform customer service about the new marketing campaign copy. And so on. 

It’s inefficient, error-prone and an ultimately unsustainable way for many startups to operate. You can see these problems every time you experience a slow-running, poorly functioning or outdated company website. Marketing is just the most obvious example; siloed teams impact everything from critical business decision-making — that is, the best infrastructure and tools to adopt — to sales, product development and commercial strategy.

A truly multidisciplinary, cross-functional marketing team includes all the skills you need to execute any project. This doesn’t mean splitting up the whole department into fixed smaller teams; it means allowing them to work cross-functionally on one project. Everyone works together and shares the same goals. Skills run in a continuum — data scientists know a bit about marketing, marketers know a bit about development. Information, insights and knowledge generated in the marketing team flow out to every other multidisciplinary department and vice versa. 

Creating these teams does not need to happen overnight. Disruption and costs can be kept to a minimum through an incremental approach that focuses as much on the philosophy as it does on the practicalities. 

To get started, begin with your data. Many businesses big and small have information held in silos. Auditing your data — where it is held, who has responsibility for collecting, managing and analysing it, where it is shared and how it is used — is the first step. Ensuring you have the tech and procedures to make it accessible across the business comes next. Building up the skills across your whole team to generate insights is the final piece of the puzzle.

Even the smallest startups can suffer with different teams operating in a quasi-rivalry with one another. More often than not it’s a structural issue. Priorities and goals across departments are not shared — except maybe a brief mention at an all-hands meeting. Actively encouraging and creating forums where different departments consistently meet to collaborate on and share problems and successes can be the easiest way to get started on closer integration and cooperation.

Teaching your team new skills can be the single most powerful initiative. It increases productivity, builds resilience and can really help speed up the integration process. But it doesn’t just happen naturally. You need to proactively upskill your team in a structured and targeted way. Identifying the key skills needed, who is best equipped to acquire them and, crucially, creating an environment where they can be applied immediately means developing a comprehensive training program. 

Many companies have a tech stack that’s largely inaccessible or inappropriate outside the department it was originally commissioned for. Your tech stack should underpin cross-functional collaboration. It is the key to free data and information flow. Ultimately, you want to get to a point where you don’t need power users to get the most out of your stack. 

Finally,  if you want to get buy-in for this approach, senior managers must lead by example. This means being more transparent with management decisions and getting more involved and knowledgeable about how departments work in practice. This is much more than receiving activity updates. It means really understanding what everyone does on a day-to-day basis.