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4 benefits of cross-functional agile teams

As organizations are adopting more agile practices, we're diving into how they can benefit from creating cross-functional agile teams across multiple departments.

Today businesses need to be more agile than ever. Digital transformation, for example, requires organizations to adapt more quickly to change, although the pandemic underscored the need for an even more extreme form of agility.

Becoming more agile is virtually impossible without the right change management mindset and the creation of cross-functional agile teams. However, when an organization ultimately becomes agile, it benefits the business, its employees as well as the customers.

Where agile concepts and cross-functional thinking began

Agile concepts began with software development teams that were facing pressure to deliver high-quality software faster. The hallmark of an agile software development team is its cross-functional nature, which combines people with different types of expertise. In today's era of DevOps and DevSecOps, the teams typically include a combination of development, testing, operations, security, product management and product ownership roles. Another distinguishing trait of agile teams is breaking down large, complex undertakings into much smaller parts that are easier to create, modify and maintain.

Agility has also enabled software teams to embrace a more experimental and iterative approach to product development that begins with a minimum viable product and enhancements that follow versus the traditional practice of planning and building a monolithic product that hopefully meets the needs of customers by the time it's released.

In the meantime, cross-functional collaboration is occurring in the C-suite, particularly with CIOs who now have a seat at the table. The CIO's involvement and leadership are expected because with digital transformation, the business and IT are inseparable. Therefore, the business and IT must operate in sync.

All these concepts are seeping into various corners of the enterprise as smaller, cross-functional agile teams become "the new normal" way of working.

The following are four of the top benefits of cross-functional agile teams within organizations:

1. Employee morale increases

Software development companies aren't the only ones producing software. In fact, there's a general realization that every company has become a software company regardless of what they do. This software-driven or software-first mentality comes with the realization that the applications a company builds should advance the company's overall business goals.

While that's arguably been the case for some time, historically there's been a disconnect between the business and IT, which is why many applications failed to meet business requirements. Conversely, application developers haven't understood the business context of what they've been building.

According to Venky Chennapragada, DevOps architect at global consulting firm Capgemini, companies are actively shifting from a project orientation to a product orientation. In the project model, teams are assembled for the purpose of the project and when the project is completed, the team dissolves. In a product model, the team is responsible for the entire lifecycle. In other words, there's no luxury of just doing one's own narrow part, such as building software and then throwing it over the fence to testing and operations.

"You have groups that are organized into pods and you're putting the product owner at the center of the universe," Chennapragada said. "Cross-functional [agile] teams have this empowerment -- they're accountable and they have ownership. There is an increase in employee morale."

2. Value delivery accelerates

The traditional Waterfall model of silos and handoffs slows value delivery. Each team is responsible for an aspect of a project such as testing software and none of the teams have visibility into what the others are doing. While the different functions may work to improve their own productivity, aggregate productivity does not benefit as much.

Shifting to relatively smaller, cross-functional agile teams enables companies to deliver value faster.

"We're seeing many Fortune 1000 companies that understand there's a new way that they must work across the organization. There's a much tighter integration," said Nathan Nelson, a principal and managing director at agile coaching and business design firm Adaptovate. "If it's done right [where] you have the right construct, leadership, clarity and alignment, you get better, faster outcomes and a better employee experience."

3. Products align with business strategy

Global consulting company ServerCentral Turing Group (SCTG) added business consultants to its solutions organization because it realized clients are hiring them to solve business problems.

"If you're an app development shop and the app is having performance issues, that's a business problem," said Josh Quint, senior director of cloud solutions at SCTG. "The biggest benefits of a cross-functional [agile] team is the ability to cross train without any extra effort. Businesspeople become more tech savvy and the technology side finally realizes its purpose."

Adaptovate's customers tend to be well-established companies that are constrained by legacy technology and business practices. They've been impacted by digital disruption and they realize that customer expectations are shifting. The client tends to be someone in the company who wants to improve something such as CX or operational efficiency.

"One of the first things we might do is assess the mindsets across the organization to see if they're even ready for something cross-functional," Adaptovate senior consultant Kayla Cartwright said. "If you don't have the right leaders who are willing to evolve, change, learn, grow and empower others so that they can do the work, then it could be a really limiting factor. If you have the right people in the room early on, it can just go faster and you'll get more value."

4. The business can adapt faster to change

As the pace of business continues to accelerate, organizations need to adapt faster to change. No force has been more dramatic than the pandemic given its global and systemic nature.

One of the benefits of cross-functional agile teams is the frequent communication and collaboration between team members and an iterative approach to problem-solving that enables the groups and the business at large to change directions more quickly.

As 2020 demonstrated, the organizations able to adapt to change the fastest have been able to weather the pandemic's whipsaw effects better than their less agile counterparts.

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