Building Cross-Functional Teams

February 11th, 2015

Frequently people ask me how our growth team is structured at Pinterest. In our case, it is a cross-functional team. Engineers, product managers, analysts, and designers all work together on shared goals. Pinterest believes the best results arise when people from different backgrounds work together on a problem. I’ve thought a lot about how to develop effective cross-functional teams in an organization, and I’d like to show how to do that successfully. These, in some ways represent how Pinterest is structured, and in other ways, don’t.

Step 1: Define Metrics
In order for a cross-functional team to be successful, it needs a North Star metric. If you’re creating one broad team, it’s a broad metric, like MAUs or revenue. I prefer creating multiple, smaller cross-functional teams that carve a piece out of the main goal, like signups or new user revenue. Then, you can create another small team for something like retained users, or repeat user revenue.

Step 2: Build the Team
A core team for cross-functional team trying to impact a metric is usually:
Engineer
Designer
Product Manager
Analyst
Potential other members:
Marketer
QA person
Researcher

Depending on the goal, you may not need many of these, or the product manager can be the catch all for analysis, research, etc. One person should be the owner of the team. Usually, this would be the person with the most context. At Pinterest, it’s either an engineer or a product manager. Ownership should seem arbitrary as the team should organically align on initiatives over time, deciding between short and long term projects, based on a shared understanding of what is likely to move the key metrics. So, ownership is more so management has one person to go to with questions than anything related to authority.

Step 3: Re-train Managers
There shouldn’t be any managers on cross-functional teams. Managers are the glue between different cross-functional teams, making sure all the teams align to the global strategy, and don’t improve their metrics at the cost of another team’s metrics, which is easy to do. Here is what some managers roles will look like in this scenario:
Design Director: align visual style across the entire application
Director of Analytics: align use of tools across teams for easy translation of data back and forth and sharing of pertinent data across teams
Marketing Director: allocate budget effectively, communicate how teams’s activities affect each other and balance
Director of Product: ensure product opportunities on one team can be leveraged by other teams, prevent disjointed product experience

Benefits of Cross-Functional Teams:
1) Improvement of cross-departmental communication: You would be amazed at how quickly individual contributors of different teams start to understand other department’s needs once they sit with them for a while and work on a shared goal. The marketer starts to understand why having dozens of tags firing is bad for the engineer. Once designers internalize the metrics from analysts, they start to work differently, and get satisfied by moving metrics instead of how beautiful their design is. The engineer sees how hard it is for the analyst to measure impact and starts to design better tracking systems and design better database storage.
2) Better ideas: The best ideas typically come from the intersection of people with different backgrounds working together on a problem. Designers, engineers, marketers, analysts et al. think differently. They solve problems differently. They have different strengths and weaknesses. Having them work together on problems almost always ensures a more optimal result.
3) Better prioritization: Instead of a product manager getting a list of requests from various teams, all those stakeholder are actively brainstorming together and measuring projects on potential impact to the metrics.
4) Increased speed: When teams aren’t spending time coordinating with other teams, disagreeing on goals and priorities, and struggling with inefficiencies, they produce results much faster.

Currently listening to Through Force of Will by Torn Hawk.

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