The Sweet Spot

Managing Conflict in Cross-Functional Teams

Interactive products are developed by cross-functional teams. This means that individuals on the team come to the table with different perspectives and priorities. Inevitably this will lead to conflict that must be resolved. Lack of alignment among team members is one of the most serious problems leading to disappointing project results.

At a minimum, cross-functional teams have a business lead and a technical lead. In agile environments the business client is typically called the product owner and the technical lead is often a scrum master but may be another role like senior developer or architect.

The role of the the business lead is to represent the interests of a variety of business stakeholders and role of the technical lead is to represent a variety of technical participants such as developers, architects, and quality assurance.

When UX is not a core member of the team

Missing from this minimal team is someone representing the end user or customer. The UX person on the project may be part of the development team with largely tactical responsibilities -- that is screen design.

It’s often assumed that the product owner will represent the customer but this role is usually better filled by a UX lead. The reason is that the customer’s interests may be minimized when internal business concerns override everything else. In many projects, customers or end users have no direct contact with the project team. Instead, surrogates such as sales or customer support staff represent the user.

The illustration on the right shows the three dimensions of a cross-functional product team for either a B2C or B2B product.

Although the players on each dimension share the common goal of producing a high-quality product, there are inherent conflicts among them. These conflicts come from different world views and priorities. Creating and maintaining alignment among the three sets of players is essential to a successful project.

  •     Typically, the business players are interested in such element as costs, revenue, market share, and time to market.
  •     Technology players are concerned with such elements as ease of development or configuration, maintainability, and reliability.
  •     Users are interested in extreme usability – products that deliver the functionality they envision in an efficient and easy to use package.  

Every time there is a decision to be made, these priorities are likely to clash. Team members will favor their own priorities. This may not be in either the best interests of the project as a whole or the product being developed.

How do you find the sweet spot?

The sweet spot balances the three priorities: business, technical and user experience.

This means that the decision-making process needs to take into account which is most important for major decisions.

There is a tendency for team members to look at decisions through their own particular lens. Let’s face it, a development team will tend to support decisions that make development easier or less risky. The business team will focus on business goals and ROI.

User experience often gets short shrift.

One reason for this is that in the B2B space there is a tendency to discount the importance of user experience since the users are paid to interact with the product. While that’s true, a poor user experience – especially poor usability – harms efficiency and ROI.

In the B2C space there is greater recognition of the importance of a good user experience since customers have more choice about which products to use. This recognition does not necessarily translate into effective UX design because the team members may not have the skills to recognize when a decision will adversely affect the user experience.

A technical or business decision may make it difficult or impossible to create an intuitive UI leading to damage to the product’s viability and usefulness. This often occurs when third party software, such as BI tools, report writes and query tools, are integrated into a product and the user is forced to cope with rigid or confusing UIs.

How do you solve the problem of finding the sweet spot so that business, technical and UX needs are balanced?

There is no magic bullet but here are three ways to achieve better balance:

1.     Treat UX design as strategic rather than operational.

UX is often treated as a purely tactical need in which a designer’s job is to lay out screens so they can be implemented. One technical lead characterized this as “we’re building the plumbing and UX is putting on the wall paper.” This is a serious misunderstanding of the role of UX.

UX should be strategic, listening to customer needs and translating those needs into a conceptual approach that the development and business teams can use to guide their thinking and decision-making.

2.     Maintain alignment among team members around a common vision.

To the extent that team members have different pictures in their mind about what the product should be, there will be a lack of alignment that impairs decision-making.

It’s important to get all perspectives on the table and bring the team to a common, shared understanding of the reasons for the project, its goals and desired outcome. Since projects tend to shift over time, both as a result of external changes and the maturation of the project team’s own vision, it’s important to “hit the reset button: from time to time and restore alignment.

3.     Agree as a team on how decisions will be made.

There are many different types of decisions that will be made over the course of a project. Some will be largely technical, some business-oriented while others will affect the user experience.

It’s important to recognize what type of decision is in the offing and think through its implications across all three dimensions. If the team cannot come to agreement, there needs to be a process to resolve the conflict. This should not be arbitrary but should consider the long-tail that many decisions have. By long-tail I mean that the consequences of a particular decision can have effects long after the decision is taken.

It’s also important, although not always easy, to think about possible unintended consequences of decisions.

The conflict in a cross-functional team can be a positive or negative force.

If conflict results in churn and the inability to make good decisions, it will bring the project down. Or, at least, impair its outcome. On the other hand, if conflict is positioned as problem solving that incorporates diverse perspectives, the team dynamic will be more positive. This will set the stage for a much better, shared understanding of the problem and agreement on a more robust, higher quality solution.