Why Business Teams Need to Start Together

by John Cutler, Product Management Coach at Cutlefish Consulting

Why Business Teams Need to Start Together

The most successful products I’ve been involved with in my career came about when the entire team opened the door to the mission at the same time, with similar expectations, and on equal footing. In other words, these teams started together. Not in silos. Not with each individual immediately going off to work on different aspects of the project. Together.

To explain why I believe starting together is so important for a business team, let me tell you a story about the music career I had before entering product management and UX.

What does starting together mean, and why is it so valuable?

In my 20s, I toured with a rock band. Just as we were about to launch our first national tour, our lead singer developed voice problems. (Coincidence? Who knows?)

We canceled upcoming shows so our singer could get medical treatment and voice coaching. While he was away, the rest of the band had to camp out in a run-down hotel room. All six of us, one room.

When he returned, our singer was stressed—about his career, about doing the vocal exercises his coach prescribed, about making sure we kept the hotel’s humidifier full of water so his throat wouldn’t dry out. And after waiting in that smelly room for our singer’s return, the rest of us were stressed as well.

As you can imagine, this led to frustration and conflict. The band had functioned as a single unit up to this point, and that cohesion and chemistry led to our national tour bookings. But now, because of this disruptive experience, we were no longer starting together. We were heading into our new tour not as one unit but instead with an “us-versus-him” dynamic.

So, what exactly do I mean by starting together?

You know those movie scenes where the band of imperfect heroes walks into the haunted house, or the cave with bats, or the scary room? It’s that shared experience of the entire team opening the door, all wondering at the same moment, “What’s in here?” The point is, we’re all in this thing together, and we’re going to make the same mistakes together, too.

The benefits of starting together can be enormous for a product team, or any team. Think of all the wonderful things that happen when people grapple with a problem together, where everyone on the team brings their unique perspective to a shared challenge.

What does not starting together look like?

Another way to understand the value of starting together is to think about what happens when you don’t.

Think of the lone UX researcher spending months getting ahead of the team, doing interviews solo, testing prototypes solo, etc.

You might also recognize the not-starting-together approach as a team holding lots of status meetings, assigning individual tasks, and occasionally gathering for small brainstorming sessions. On the surface, that might look like teamwork. What’s really happening day to day, however, is that all of these team members work in silos on their to-do lists. Not until the last moment, when they have a near-finished product, will this group come together as a cross-functional team.

Is your organization failing to create a starting-together culture?

Here are some questions to ask yourself and your team, to help spot the signs that you’re fostering a culture of not starting together:

  • Do you allow individuals to spend a lot of time isolated from the team because they’re busy and have a lot of tasks to complete?
  • Do some of the people on your team like to go off and work alone so they can “get ahead” of a new project, and bring an airtight case to the team?
  • Do you find that your team does a lot of backtracking and re-planning, because various members weren’t on the same page about the mission?

If you recognize any of these scenarios, you might want to step back and think about how you can adjust this culture to create a safe environment for doing the messy but valuable work of starting together.

The value of working together

team looking at laptop working on project together

The benefits of a together culture don’t end after the team starts a project, either. That team needs to keep working together beyond the kickoff, the design sprint, the spike, or whatever the initial event is.

Remember, working together does not mean providing status checks or reporting to stakeholders. It also doesn’t mean individuals working in parallel toward the same goal. That’s not working together—it’s working as many teams of one.

Working together involves:

  • Occasional pairing of members in different areas of a cross-functional team
  • Swarming as a team on impediments
  • Bringing the whole group to the whiteboard to brainstorm or solve issues
  • Continually making sure the entire team is having a shared experience of making progress toward a common goal

I’ve experienced firsthand the many benefits of working together in this sense. Product management learns an enormous amount from engineering. Engineering gets a much better understanding of why product management prioritizes initiatives the way it does. Design and development gain fresh perspectives and improve each other’s work. Team members build bonds, trust, and concern for each other. They develop a shorthand language that speeds things up and makes everyone more efficient.

The list here could go on for pages—and the end result, in many cases, is a much better product.

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