The Silo Busters: 5 Ways to Break Down Barriers to Software Team Collaboration

 

Jason Thane

I’m a software maker by trade and by training, but now I work on strategy, organizational development, supporting company culture, and studying emerging technology in search of the great software platforms of the future.

Updated Sep 21, 2021

If you’ve been in software development long enough, you’ve likely heard the phrase “throw it over the wall.” It refers to finishing a part of a product development project and then passing it off to the next group. For example, product developers finish their work and throw it over the wall to the designers, who then throw it over the wall to the engineering team, and then onto QA—and so on.

This phenomenon is a natural outcome of siloed specialist teams. It’s comfortable. Everyone stays in their lane and does the job they were hired for. Nobody steps on anybody else’s toes.

Handoffs can be planned and executed in an orderly fashion. However, this stepwise process is inefficient and strangles innovation. Software development is all about communication, and quality and efficiency both suffer when it’s lacking.

Throwing it over the wall limits the ability to achieve the highest-quality software product. Unfortunately, it can persist even when organizations pursue an agile, multidisciplinary approach—because it’s a comfortable way to work. Boundaries become barriers—or worse, excuses (“it’s not my job”).

True collaboration is worth the effort

The alternative is true collaboration. Although technology and process support true collaboration, its foundation is primarily cultural. Collaborative teams consciously challenge the barriers between disciplines.

That doesn’t mean discarding specialization or expecting everyone to do everything. Specialization is a good and necessary part of any development team. Clearly defined responsibilities are critical to successful outcomes.

However, with a collaborative mindset, new possibilities open up. When engineers are engaged in the design process, they can eliminate technical problems early. When designers seek to understand the technology platform, they can come up with solutions that are both innovative and realistic. When each discipline sees itself as part of a larger whole, when they seek opportunities to learn from and connect with one another, that’s when the magic happens.

True collaboration is an ongoing process of learning, self-reflection, and cultural maturity. We work hard to practice what we preach in this area, and while we are by no means perfect at it, we’ve learned a few things along the way. In this article, we’ve distilled some of this experience down into “Five Cs” of collaboration: curiosity, communication, courage, clarity, and customer focus.

01 Curiosity: Seeking new ideas

Let’s start with the first C: curiosity. When it comes to building a software development team, we start by looking for people who are “T-shaped.” You may be familiar with this term, as it’s commonly used in agile development processes.

When we talk about a team member with t-shaped skills, we’re referring to someone who has deep expertise in their discipline—representing the vertical bar in the letter T. They also have a breadth of skills that cross disciplines, represented by the horizontal bar.

T-shaped people, whether they’re engineers, designers, or project managers, combine deep specialization with a wide range of interests inside and beyond their field. They are naturally curious and like to seek out opportunities to learn about other disciplines.

This doesn’t mean interfering with other people’s work or telling them what to do. When people with different strengths collaborate well, the result can be far better than what either of them could accomplish alone. For example, a designer working without knowing how the software works could make big mistakes. Developers working without thinking about design might make similar mistakes. Each person sees a different side of the mountain, and they need to work together to get to the right outcome.

02 Communication: Getting on the same page

Cross-disciplinary collaboration requires being open to communication. A lot of this comes down to a very traditional and often-maligned aspect of any business activity: meetings. Regular, structured, scheduled team meetings remain a cornerstone of effective collaboration. This is even more true when people work remotely, which reduces opportunities for informal communication.

There’s an art to effective meetings. Especially today, when remote and hybrid work are here to stay, using meeting time wisely is a huge collaboration booster. Leaders can help by actively engaging people in the conversation and getting their viewpoints. The practice of nonviolent communication helps ensure that people feel comfortable sharing ideas even when they might not know the answer.

Slack and other messaging systems are also effective communication tools for cross-disciplinary communication. How they are used is as important as which technology you choose. It requires a willingness to answer questions and engage in dialogue. The right balance of formal and informal communication helps prevent burnout. People need the freedom to not respond instantly to out-of-band communications, while always looking for opportunities to contribute when they can. This is where technologies such as voice channels, screen sharing, and remote pairing can make a big difference in improving collaboration.

03 Courage: Knowing what you don't know

The third C is probably the toughest of the five factors that enable true collaboration. Specialists are proud of what they do and know, and rightly so. We all want to be seen as good at what we do and gaining that kind of knowledge takes a lot of time and effort.

A culture of collaboration, though, requires the courage to admit what you don’t know—repeatedly. In a culture of safety and nonviolence, the personal and professional risk of going out on a limb is minimized. Collaboration builds an orientation toward solutions rather than complaining or blame.

When cross-disciplinary learning is encouraged and rewarded, people quickly recognize that they don’t have to waste their energy defending their expertise. This also leads to a greater ability to be honest about difficult realities such as broken features or stalled projects.

04 Clarity: Defining roles and responsibilities

Collaboration is not chaos. In fact, it requires being well-organized, so people have the bandwidth and focus to step outside of their limitations. Poorly implemented agile methodologies can turn into a “sink or swim” environment. That’s a recipe for defensive behavior that impedes collaboration.

Clarity about project responsibilities and timelines frees people to be more collaborative. It empowers them to say “no,” so they feel at liberty to say “yes” more often. We find that well-designed structure is the quickest path to collaborative freedom.

05 Customer focus: Going the extra mile

When specialist team members are focused narrowly on their own discipline, it’s easy to forget why they are building things a certain way. It’s the old saying: when your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you are focused on executing requirements, you’re not going to ask questions or proactively identify problems.

In software, the why always comes down to the customer need—the value people will get from the product. The customer doesn’t care how you got to the solution. Collaborative software teams shouldn’t, either. The shared purpose of maximizing value to the customer is a powerful lever for breaking down the walls that impede collaboration.

Practically speaking, focusing on the customer requires keeping the business purpose front and center throughout the project. Everyone—not just the product lead—should be able to clearly understand and articulate the business value to the end user. As testing and iteration refine that value proposition, that shared understanding should evolve along with it.

Delivering better products through true collaboration

Using the five Cs in software product development doesn’t just help people be engaged and excited. It supports the creation of better products. Team members become aware of how their decisions affect others. They cherish expertise and learning, being proud to ask for advice rather than afraid of seeming foolish. They also become more generous with their expertise and time. Cross-disciplinary solutions come to the surface faster, and problems get flagged and solved earlier in the process.

The mixing of ideas and perspectives on your team helps surface new and innovative ideas. We wrote about this in a recent blog post that showed how working as a team enables engineers to continually learn from each other. As a result of true collaboration, products get to market faster because design has an idea of what’s practical to build, engineers clearly understand the product’s design goals, and every member of the team is focused squarely on the customer.

A real-life example of the power of collaboration

At GenUI, we bring this same approach to collaboration with our customers, applying the five Cs to learn about their business, innovate, and deliver customer value faster. One example is our collaboration with Buddy Platform Ltd., an IoT and cloud technology provider. Buddy engaged us to redesign its IoT system, which serves commercial real estate property owners and managers.

In communicating and collaborating closely with GenUI, Buddy’s internal developers learned proven methodologies for user-centered design that are still helping them develop better products today. We worked with Buddy to analyze findings and build a matrix that helped bridge their product cap from current state to ultimate design. Buddy’s VP of Product, Charles Eliot, says, “GenUI approached our problem with high skills combined with humility for the journey ahead, which resonated with me.”

Creating the right team is the result of open communication and collaboration, which is one of our core values. To drive software innovation, we believe it’s best not to work alone or in silos – but to create profound collaboration.

Are collaboration challenges slowing down your product development process? We bring the tools and methodologies of true collaboration to every project and help our clients adopt best practices. Let’s talk about how we can collaborate to bring your vision to life.