More than a few tech executives describe relations between their engineering and business teams as divisive as oil and water. But startups that have good collaboration infrastructure baked into their culture are less like oil and water and more like chocolate and peanut butter.
In environments where good collaboration hasn’t been fostered, the engineers often feel the complexity of their work isn’t understood by non-engineers, while those charged with growing and managing the business become frustrated when engineers push back with a reality check on what’s possible.
However, solutions exist to this common culture clash. Below are some steps you can take to foster constructive collaboration between the engineering and business teams at your startup, one where they actually support each other in building and promoting fantastic products.
1. Show business employees that engineers bring the leadership’s strategy to life.
Contributions from people on the business side bring a concrete monetary value to the company: a partnership deal that increased revenue, a marketing campaign that brought in new customers or operations changes that reduced the monthly burn rate. However, the business side has to remember that without engineers, there would be no product -- and there would be no business.
Regular updates, in the form of company-wide emails or meetings, explaining progress on the product and new updates specifically for the benefit of non-technical employees is a good start. Also, consider making a basic understanding of your company’s tech part of the onboarding process for all new hires -- especially non-technical ones. Moreover, respect for engineering needs to be infused into the business team’s strategy.
2. Make sure engineers respect that marketing and business help that life grow.
The business team can share valuable insights with the engineers regarding what customers want and need, and those insights inform the development of stronger products. Put another way, the business team has access to “on the ground” information that the engineering team needs to keep building outstanding products.
We operated in stealth mode for two years so that we could focus on perfecting our product. When we decided to bring marketing and other business teams into our product-focused company, we had to be smart and strategic about it. Because we demonstrated how these new employees mapped back to our product-first strategy, it fostered a natural respect among the teams.
For example, our marketing and sales teams have taken on the complicated task of making our technology stand out in a crowded field with competitors that seem similar on the surface. Our marketing team knows our product intimately. Their work highlighting it elevates the years of dedication these engineers have given to the technology and grows it into an even stronger and better business.
3. Hire problem solvers on both sides in order to promote collaboration.
This might seem like an obvious point, but when you’re in a crunch hiring for a position, it’s easy to focus on the tactical skills a person has that can solve a short-term problem and overlook that you need to build teams that can work together effectively.
But having people with good problem-solving skills is in fact key to cross-team collaboration. Studies show that if someone is a good problem solver in one area, he or she likely is in most others. In an article on how to get along at work in Fortune, psychologist John D. Mayer notes that in tests, “those who reasoned poorly in a specific area tend to be less good in all the other areas.” So when you’re hiring, you want to determine whether or not potential hires are good at problem solving.
When you’re interviewing, in order to suss out potential employees who can problem solve and collaborate, ask candidates to talk about a time they ran into a challenge and found a solution through collaboration. Follow that question up by giving an example of an unconventional challenge that’s a little outside of their expertise and see what sort of solution they come up with on the spot -- ideally they should indicate that they’d need to collaborate with others to arrive at a solution. This approach will give you a glimpse into their track record and shows you how they might help resolve problems in the future at your startup.
Ultimately good collaboration between engineering and business is a matter of respect for each other's’ trades, experience, intelligence and even jargon. Pair that respect with a company of problem solvers, and you’ll see productive collaboration between your engineers and non-technical employees. That happier and more collaborative work environment ultimately leads to a better business.