Making Decisions on Cross Functional Teams

In 1999 I was running my very first product management organization at a Web 1.0 startup.  Woohoo! We had just decided to divide the development org into multiple cross functional teams because we were getting too big to operate as one team.  These teams would be staffed with product managers, designers, engineers and QA.  We got lots of input across the organization and worked hard on the rollout plan.  We called a big all-hands and I nervously presented the new team model to the entire company.  We explained how many teams, what they would work on etc etc.  At the end of the presentation one of our engineering managers raised his hand.

“Who makes the decisions on the teams?”

Ummm…… ahhh……., I was completely unprepared for the question.  I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I sure as hell didn’t nail it.  Screwing up the answer to this question damaged the rollout of an otherwise well put together plan.

Since that day, I have replayed that question over in my head and how I should have responded.  Here is what I wish I had said:

As a cross functional team, you are making a million decisions a day.  And rarely, is it clear who makes what decisions.  You are collaborating, designing, building… and decisions happen all the time without clear owners or hierarchy.  This should be about 90% of the time.

Sometimes, a decision comes up and the team can’t agree on the right direction.  in these cases, the product manager makes the call.  Why the PM?  They ultimately should have the broadest purview across all the things to make the product successful.  They should be best equipped to weigh the pros and cons and make a balanced decision.  And even if it wasn’t your preferred direction, you listen to the rationale and get back in motion.  Note, a good PM listens to all parties and explains the rationale when making a decision.   This should be about 9% of the time.

But sometimes, you just can’t live with the decision that the PM made.  What do you do then?  You escalate up the chain of command to management.  Occasional escalations is not a bad thing.  It is the team raising their hand and asking for help on a tough issue.  But a team that frequently needs to escalate decisions, is a great indicator of some deeper dysfunctions.  This should be about 1% of the time.


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