Ever worked in a startup? In particular an early stage one with around 6-12 people? My bet is that it was populated by highly motivated individuals with a strong desire to succeed, and was most likely immense fun to be a part of – and not to mention the hardest you ever worked! And by definition that team was cross-functional and self-organising – in other words it had all the requisite roles and skills to succeed, and was empowered to figure out how to achieve its goals.
Contrast that with how many sales teams are organised today: often as not they are functional silos, where team members all have the same role, and report to a line manager, but they’re not really a team in the truest sense. Rarely do members within a team work on common customers or opportunities; the only thing bringing them together is the weekly forecast call where their individual performance numbers “roll up” to their line manager. Ad hoc and short-lived groupings of people from across the different functional teams come together to work on specific customer opportunities, with individuals sometimes belonging to several such groupings at any time – but within your “team” you’re basically on your own. Like a football team where each player is playing on a different pitch.
A good manager will be supportive of all team members, providing coaching where necessary, and getting involved with sales campaigns and helping to close deals where required. A bad one will only congratulate success, and crack the whip when performance is lacking. This can result in individual team members feeling alone and isolated, especially when the going is tough, and even more so if other team members are doing well.
Now don’t get me wrong – if that model is working for you, and all your sales people are doing great, then you may have no compelling reason to change. But given reports are showing more than 50% of sales people are not achieving targets (State of Sales, Salesforce Research, 2018) and the average tenure for a sales person is around 1.5 years (The Bridge Group, 2018), something is clearly not as it should be.
So why not take a lesson from the start up culture? Instead of scaling the organisation by building functional silos, scale using the start up team model – with stable, cross-functional, self-organising teams, organised around value delivery, becoming the primary organisational unit.
So what is a stable, cross-functional, self-organising team?
This approach to team organisation has been a game changer, especially in IT, over the past couple of decades as a key element of lean-agile transformation. But what does it really mean? Let’s break it down.
A stable team is a group of people that work together with some degree of longevity, so they can bond, grow together, learn and train together, to reach a desirable level of performance, without frequent disruption to the team structure.
Each team is composed of all the required roles to ensure the team can meet its goals: finding and winning new customers, developing and winning deals, and ensuring customers are successful and remain loyal. The aim is to minimise dependencies on people and business functions outside of the team.
Organised around value-delivery:
The team is organised around a set of customers or a defined territory, and owns the end to end value stream that delivers value to those customers (or as much of it as makes sense to do so). Team members will be frequently working together on the same customers, opportunities and campaigns, and caring about the same outcomes.
The team is empowered to decide how to achieve its goals, and to own its way of working – within certain guidelines. Governance, reporting, forecasting etc. will still be required, but the day to day operation of the team is down to the team – they own responsibility for how they will work together, develop strategy, plan campaigns, own opportunities, and ensure customers are successful.
Some teams may even get to decide how their compensation plans will work – teams work best when they share common goals and rewards. Team-based commission is a great way to remove tensions from within the team and incentivise the right behaviours.
Leadership of the team is from within – not a manager, but a team member with more experience, and the people skills to lead, coach and facilitate. Ideally this is a hands-on player-coach role, retaining responsibilities for selling, and owning opportunities and accounts, but also accountable for the overall performance and driving continuous improvement within the team.
Depending on the size and needs of the organisation, erstwhile functional managers may move to roles where instead of responsibility for the day to day running of the team, they focus on hiring, compensation plans, coaching and professional development, for the functions that they represent. Insights across multiple teams puts them in a good position to see what’s working well and where there is room for improvement, and identify good practices that can be shared between teams.
This type of organisation structure may mean that there is no longer a need for a dedicated, separate, Sales Enablement function, as sales enablement responsibilities can be owned directly within the sales teams and functional disciplines.
Benefits of a Cross-functional Team Approach
A long-lived, diverse and empowered team will have multiple advantages over teams organised as functional silos. Here’s just a few:
Teams that unite around a common purpose will have a higher sense of identity and stronger bonding, leading to improved collaboration, engagement, and motivation.
Greater speed and agility:
Fully empowered, self-organising teams, own decision making without frequent need to seek higher level approval, along with the skills and resources required to execute, so they are more able to respond to opportunities and threats quickly. Hand-off delays between functional silos are removed.
Increased creativity and innovation:
A more diverse team brings different skills, experience and insights, providing a holistic view of problems and potential solutions, fuelling cross-seeding of ideas.
Outputs from one function are no longer being “thrown over the wall” to another silo, but retained within the team. Through a sense of shared ownership, team members take greater responsibility for the quality of their deliverables, whether they’re completed campaigns, qualified leads, closed opportunities or customer on-boarding plans and implementations.
Because teams have better insight across the value chain (e.g. business development, sales, customer success) and ownership of their way of working, they are both incentivised and able to make continual improvements to their approach.
Better customer experience:
Customers no longer “feel the org chart” because handovers from one functional silo to the next are minimised or avoided. Customer knowledge gained at different stages of the process passes seamlessly between team members and becomes part of the teams “DNA”.
Ability to “swarm” when required:
In a football team, although team members have different skills and play in different positions, they can all strike, defend and save when needed. Likewise, in a cross-functional customer facing team, members can swarm around any specific challenge, and apply their capacity and skills to whatever needs doing in order to achieve the teams goals.
Critical Factors for Cross-functional Team Success
If you’re about to embark on the journey to working in this way, here’s a few things to think about before you set off:
The team should be led from within and from the front – the team lead being in the trenches with the rest of the team. This requires not just sales skills but a broader understanding of the overall go-to-market process, plus people skills, and the ability to coach. This is not the job for a successful “lone wolf” sales person.
The team needs to unite around shared, common goals: whether that means sales revenue, customer retention, improvement objectives, or some other targets. Performance against goals and targets needs to be continually communicated as transparently as possible.
No secrets, nothing is hidden, everything is out in the open. A culture of absolute transparency helps create trust which is vital for really good teamwork.
Team members should be able to speak freely, earn praise when deserved, and take constructive criticism when required. It needs to be OK to challenge others’ opinions, whatever their role.
It’s about the team, not the individuals. Team members should have each other’s backs covered and be supportive of each other. Successes should be celebrated, and lessons should be learned, together as a team.
It’s really vital that this is frequent or even continuous – especially so in an environment where all or some team members are working remotely. Daily stand-ups are a simple but great way to bring the team together, to know who is doing what, when and why, and who needs help. Good communication encourages good collaboration, which leads to getting more stuff done, and getting stuff done better.
Commitment and openness:
Team members need to be committed to this new way of working, or at least willing to give it a try. At a minimum they need to have an open mind and a willingness to learn. A lean-startup/experimental mindset is even better.
Guidelines and guardrails:
Despite the team being self-organising, there will always be limits to authority and autonomy, and it’s important to know where those lie, what to do when they are reached or breached, and how to escalate risks, issues and impediments that cannot be handled within the team.
Tools and technology:
Ideally, have the right tools and tech in place to support the way the teams work – not the other way around. Automate where it makes sense to do so, but don’t become slaves to the technology. Ensure that all process and tooling provides value to the team rather than being an overhead.
No team exists in a vacuum, and clearly senior leadership needs to be on board with the approach and understand how it is different. Teams can help by being transparent and keeping the leadership continually updated with strategy, performance and (the holy grail!) accurate forecasts. The leadership team are your friends – only they can create the right environment in which you can be successful.
Traditional sales team structures leave plenty to be desired, and some would argue that an overhaul is long past due. Borrowing ideas from the startup model, and practices from lean and agile movements, suggests there are better ways to organise and operate teams, and achieve higher levels of commitment, collaboration, and continuous improvement, leading to stronger overall performance. Speed, agility and quality can all improve, along with an enhanced customer experience and healthier sales revenues.
Making the change is not always straightforward, and there are many factors to consider if you’re going to get it right, but, in my experience at least, once you’ve tried this, you’re not going to want to go back to the old way.