This is part one of a four-part series on squads. Stay tuned for part two, on how to manage squads.
There are tons of ways to facilitate and promote internal collaboration; it runs the gamut from encouraging information sharing on Slack to having people from different departments eat lunch together. But when it comes to collaborating on a very specific initiative or project, there’s a ton of value to be found in multidisciplinary squads.
What is a squad?
A squad is, very simply, a small group of employees from different departments who together tackle a specific project or deliverable. The goal of a squad is to autonomously execute on that deliverable. The purpose of using a squad, though, is more to ease internal communication and collaboration. It’s absolutely vital that squads are made up of members from different teams and departments if that purpose is to be fulfilled.
Usually squads meet on a weekly basis to go over progress on the deliverable. Squad members act as ambassadors for their department. They represent their team in meetings while relaying all relevant information regarding the project back to their peers.
How squads help with internal collaboration?
There’s a reason “silo” is probably the single most widely-used metaphor in business. Everyone is focused on their own projects, tasks, and goals — that’s normal. But collaboration requires a wider view and a little bit of extra effort. That’s where squads come in handy.
Squads facilitate internal collaboration in a few important ways:
1. They encourage the cross-pollination of ideas
Have you ever heard of Conway’s law? It basically states that organizations design systems that mirror their own communication structure. So if you have one team designing your product, your product will be shaped like that team.
What if that team favors certain ideas or approaches? What if the people designing the product don’t represent or at least communicate with your users? Your product will always be shaped by the team’s tendencies. As a result, you may miss out on opportunities to build something better or more representative.
How squads help
Squads are a way to make sure this never happens. They provide regular opportunities for the cross-pollination of ideas. Even if your developers continue to actually build the product, team members from sales, marketing, and customer service will provide new ideas and perspectives to each new product. Plus, having team members who interact more regularly with your customers in the squads usually means user interests better represented in the final deliverable.
“Having the chance to influence and contribute to projects we may not have otherwise seen until they were completed has been great. We always know how we arrived at the finished product, which makes it easier to explain things to our users.”Jordan Burrows, Customer Success Team Lead
Furthermore, the lifetime of the squad will ideally be the same as the lifetime of the project. This means that once the project is done, a squad is broken up and a new squad formed for the next project. In doing so, you never have the same makeup of ideas or perspectives. Squad dynamics are allowed to shift and change — which is important if certain team members are more vocal or influential than others. This also allows you to set new squad leaders based on their expertise in relation to the deliverable. And it creates an opportunity for employees to work on projects with all of their coworkers. Usually, this contributes to a better team dynamic and reinforces collaboration even outside of the squad.
2. They reduce communication overhead
Working on a complex project with multiple different teams demands a lot of organization and a lot of communication. Unfortunately, that cross-team communication usually ends up filling your inbox or creating a ton of noise on Slack. Not everyone uses the same channels, so you might even end up in a situation where information on a single project is being shared across several different tools. Often, this leads to lost information, missed opportunities, and a generally slower process.
How squads help
Squads reduce this kind of communication overhead by providing a regular, weekly opportunity for people to interact. Weekly check-ins provide clarity on what each team member should be working on in the coming week. And people are far less inclined to send 10 emails back and forth when they know they’ll be in a room with the other person in a day or two. You may also want to have a specific channel on Slack for your squad. Or you could set up a project and sync it across each team’s work management tool for more immediate requests.
Beyond reducing the unnecessary conversations between people working on the project, squads drastically reduce communication overhead caused by those not directly working on the deliverable. How often do managers shoot off an email asking for status updates, or checking to see if they need to be involved? Or what about colleagues who accidentally stumble on drafts, tests you’re running, or anything else related to a project their not involved in, and suddenly have a ton of questions or input?
“The squad is temporary. We come together to achieve a specific goal and once that’s done we disband. It’s very goal oriented and it makes it easier to work knowing you have an objective.”Ghiona Tamir, Growth Marketer
As mentioned earlier, each member of a squad is responsible for relaying information to their own team. They should be sharing squad status updates with managers and letting others on their team know if they’ll be affected by the work. By turning them into team ambassadors of sorts, you automatically direct the flow of information to one source, saving everyone from email overload. Moreover, this allows the squad to work more independently.
3. They encourage ongoing feedback
One of the major issues with cross-departmental collaboration is that each stage of a project tends to be siloed within the department that owns it. Usually, if marketing is put in charge of creating copy, other teams will only see copy when it’s finished. If they have feedback at that stage, it’s taken back into marketing, worked on, and then reshared. In other words, collaborating teams do get the opportunity to provide feedback, but it’s restricted to milestone moments when the bulk of the work is done.
This is problematic for a few reasons. First, it slows down the entire process. If the feedback requires significant changes to the deliverable, you need to reinvest all the time you already spent on the first round. Second, people tend to be less willing to provide negative feedback on something that’s close to completion for that exact reason. No one likes telling someone that they don’t like what was produced, or that they’ll have to restart.
How squads help
One of the real strengths of squads is that they create opportunities for ongoing feedback. Squads meet on a weekly basis at a minimum, and everyone involved shares their progress. This allows their colleagues to provide feedback on things that aren’t finished, or are in their early stages — saving you from ever having to restart from scratch. These sessions are also a comfortable space for feedback, and people are encouraged to be open and honest with their thoughts.
“Being a product manager, you have to communicate with every department involved in the development of a new product. The squads allow me to make sure everyone is aligned from the very beginning, and each step of the way, speeding up communication time considerably.”Laura Di Costanzo, Product Manager
No matter your industry or company size, businesses always benefit when their teams work well together. Creating multidisciplinary squads is a fantastic way to help teams collaborate and achieve a common goal.
Are tools getting in the way of cross-departmental collaboration in your business? Unito connects work management tools, making it easier for teams to work together.