Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Teaming your way through economic difficulty

by Thomas Peham, VP of Marketing at enterprise CMS Storyblok

It’s well documented that the business world faces one of its most challenging years of recent decades as high inflation, rising interest rates and the cost-of-living crisis impact spending and consumer confidence. Different companies will experience these factors differently. However, for nearly all, it is likely that increasing efficiencies to build resilience will be a priority. While it may not necessarily be the first thing that springs to mind, it’s important not to overlook the opportunity to adapt and even reconfigure your team as part of this in order to improve efficiency and drive innovation to remain competitive.

To understand why, let’s consider the traditional team setup. Generally speaking, most departments, be it finance, HR, marketing or product development, work in silo, only cross-collaborating on a needs-must basis. This approach follows the widely entrenched traditional business model where different departments are naturally segmented by roles that have very different skill sets. Yet it can be very restrictive and costly. This is because working in silos obstructs communication, stifles productivity, leads to potential friction and even resentment among teams, and generally just makes getting anything done a lot harder than it needs to be. 

A much more effective alternative is ‘multidisciplinary cross functional teams’. Multidisciplinary teams are, as the name suggests, departments made up of people with a wide variety of skills. Cross-functional means that responsibilities, knowledge and aims go right across the business. 

The most straightforward example of how this works in practice is within marketing. Communication has become incredibly complex — more channels, more tools, digital transformation, an unprecedented amount of data and higher expectations. Websites are expected to provide a host of personalised experiences. All of this requires a huge number of skills working in tandem: data science, security, IT, digital marketing, copywriting, customer service, development and much more. Juggling all of these different skills found in different departments with different goals leads to a lot of headaches and, in some cases, conflicts. Marketers make requests of developers to complete an action immediately but it falls to the back of the queue because the developers have their own priorities. Data scientists may provide inputs that don’t include the commercial insights that marketers need for strategies. Everyone forgets to inform customer service about the new marketing campaign copy. And so on. 

It’s inefficient, error-prone and an ultimately unsustainable way for many startups to operate. You can see these problems every time you experience a slow-running, poorly functioning or outdated company website. Marketing is just the most obvious example; siloed teams impact everything from critical business decision-making — that is, the best infrastructure and tools to adopt — to sales, product development and commercial strategy.

Solving the skills puzzle

A truly multidisciplinary, cross-functional marketing team includes all the skills you need to execute any project. This doesn’t mean splitting up the whole department into fixed smaller teams; it means allowing them to work cross-functionally on one project. Everyone works together and shares the same goals. Skills run in a continuum — data scientists know a bit about marketing, marketers know a bit about development. Information, insights and knowledge generated in the marketing team flow out to every other multidisciplinary department and vice versa. 

Creating these teams does not need to happen overnight. Disruption and costs can be kept to a minimum through an incremental approach that focuses as much on the philosophy as it does on the practicalities. 

To get started, begin with your data. Many businesses big and small have information held in silos. Auditing your data — where it is held, who has responsibility for collecting, managing and analysing it, where it is shared and how it is used — is the first step. Ensuring you have the tech and procedures to make it accessible across the business comes next. Building up the skills across your whole team to generate insights is the final piece of the puzzle.

Even the smallest startups can suffer with different teams operating in a quasi-rivalry with one another. More often than not it’s a structural issue. Priorities and goals across departments are not shared — except maybe a brief mention at an all-hands meeting. Actively encouraging and creating forums where different departments consistently meet to collaborate on and share problems and successes can be the easiest way to get started on closer integration and cooperation.

Teaching your team new skills can be the single most powerful initiative. It increases productivity, builds resilience and can really help speed up the integration process. But it doesn’t just happen naturally. You need to proactively upskill your team in a structured and targeted way. Identifying the key skills needed, who is best equipped to acquire them and, crucially, creating an environment where they can be applied immediately means developing a comprehensive training program. 

Many companies have a tech stack that’s largely inaccessible or inappropriate outside the department it was originally commissioned for. Your tech stack should underpin cross-functional collaboration. It is the key to free data and information flow. Ultimately, you want to get to a point where you don’t need power users to get the most out of your stack. 

Finally,  if you want to get buy-in for this approach, senior managers must lead by example. This means being more transparent with management decisions and getting more involved and knowledgeable about how departments work in practice. This is much more than receiving activity updates. It means really understanding what everyone does on a day-to-day basis. 

It’s often said that team work makes the dream work and this is never truer than when it comes to weathering economic difficulty. Rather, by coming closer together, it becomes possible for key business functions to work faster, smarter, and more effectively within time constraints and even financial limitations to secure the best ROI when it has, perhaps, never been more important.