The best brands in the world have embraced design as a critical component of corporate strategy. However, cross-functional teams at these companies, including engineering, product, and design, often struggle to work collaboratively and speak the same language.
Jennie Baird, VP of Product at News Corp, joined a panel of experts at InVision’s The Business Impact of Design event in New York City this past spring to discuss ways of overcoming the challenges of working cross-functionally. With nearly 30,000 employees worldwide, the media powerhouse manages to successfully collaborate not just across disciplines, but across the organization’s various global brands. Jennie Baird says the key to effective teamwork is mutual respect across teams, whose diverse skills and perspectives are essential to a product’s success. To build authentic relationships with colleagues from different teams, she recommends regular interactions, which should include fun activities outside of work.
Jennie has worked in media at the intersection of content and technology for nearly 25 years. A former operating executive and consultant, she has also successfully started businesses within big corporations and her own startup, the wildly popular baby-naming website, BabyNameWizard.com.
We caught up with Jennie offstage to further explore building powerful partnerships between engineering, product, and design:
Can you share some top tips you use at News Corp for working cross-functionally between engineering, product, and design?
JB: I like to say that the secret to my success is that I’ve always had a best friend at work who was my lead engineer. People laugh when they hear that, but the best teams are teams where there is true respect across disciplines, where there is no question too small or too stupid to ask. We work in an ever-changing field, and respect for our colleagues who bring different skills and perspectives is the foundation of effective teamwork.
We work hard, but our work is fun—and it challenges us creatively and intellectually every day. That combination creates a collegial environment that seems to foster authentic friendships.
I do try to engineer fun activities for our teams to enjoy together, whether that’s a special meal while we’re traveling for the job, sitting together in the lunchroom, or going boxing after work.
In your experience as VP of Product at News Corp, when and why does the collaboration between engineering, product, and design breakdown?
JB: When everyone is aligned on the product vision and scope, it’s much easier to keep a project on track. My team at News Corp is pretty lean and focused, so collaboration may be easier for us—and more in our company’s DNA—than elsewhere.
An Agile process might provide a framework, but it’s no substitute for a functional team.
You cannot communicate face-to-face enough. We meet at least weekly with the cross-functional team, and—depending on where we are in the product lifecycle—even daily. These meetings drive momentum and force us to address difficult issues in a timely and direct fashion.
How do you create visibility at News Corp across the silos of engineering, product, and design so that everyone has a clear understanding of what team members are working on (such as creative design reviews within each journey team, or by using prototypes)?
JB: When it comes to innovation, part of News Corp’s advantage is our ability to connect the dots and collaborate not just across disciplines, but across our global brands.
We use prototypes and conduct roadshows to get the message out and gather feedback and identify points of intersection. We also have a program we call Global Councils where people working in similar disciplines across different News Corp brands and businesses meet up at a regular cadence, usually monthly, to share insights, innovation, new product development, etc.
Those groups often work together to solve a problem that impacts multiple brands or to address a new opportunity in the marketplace.
How do you align teams across shared goals?
JB: Projects always start a little amorphously, don’t they? We do some free-form conversations with our stakeholders and members of our teams across disciplines at the beginning of a project and out of that, we articulate our product scope and vision.
This [scope] is a simple text document that can be as little as a few sentences that outlines the vision and objectives for the product we are creating. It’s a good reference to have if you find yourself losing your way as a project progresses and things inevitably get more complicated.
From there, we generally start working on visual concepts that can make that vision more tangible. Our stakeholders are often editors with strong points of view on design and layout—and they love to edit whatever we come up with! Their perspective can give us essential focus as we move into development.
How do you build empathy, social connection, and trust between teams, especially when their attitudes, behaviors, and work approaches are often very different?
JB: Great product leadership requires great communication and great relationship-building skills. Too often when we think about communication skills we think about speaking and writing.
The most important skill for a product leader is active listening. Be a good listener and you will naturally build trust across individuals, teams, and disciplines.
Do you think it’s possible/practical for a project to be truly customer-led, rather than one team taking the lead?
JB: I think this is a trick question! We all want to build products that will delight our customers. But being 100 percent led by the customer has its pitfalls. Customer insights are one very important input we need to evaluate as product and design leaders. But we need to be sensitive to other business and technology concerns—and when it comes to innovation, we also need to listen to our intuition and instincts.
When you’re inventing something new, you’re working on a product or service the customer may never have imagined. That’s how new markets are born.
What are your top tips for applying an Agile approach to the design process, especially when working with a large, cross-functional team?
JB: We’re in an Agile moment right now. But I’ve worked in this field long enough to know that product development trends and processes come and go.
You can use the process to move your project forward, manage priorities and create structures for your team. Or you can weaponize that process to gum up the works and make things impossible for your team. (Please don’t tell me I’m out of “points” when we are all working to a long-agreed upon deadline!)
Successful teams come together. They have chemistry. They have a shared vision that everyone believes in and is working towards. An Agile process might provide a framework, but it’s no substitute for a functional team.
If you’re looking for more insight into the ways engineering-design collaboration can impact key business metrics, check out The New Design Frontier report. It covers data from 2200 companies about team structures, designer-to-engineer ratios, and product design practices.