Adobe CIO: Cross-functional collaboration requires embracing failure and loss of control

Cynthia Stoddard shares leadership lessons gleaned from her organization's move to cross-functional teams. Consider her three keys to success
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Collaborating more cross-functionally at Adobe has produced a number of advantages: improved innovation, more creativity, better communication, and faster speed to market. It has also required us to get comfortable with uncomfortable ideas – such as failure and relinquishing control.

While these changes haven’t always been easy, we’ve created a path to success by focusing on clearly defining team structures, building relationships, and promoting successes together.

Embracing the unfamiliar and failure

People find comfort in the familiar, whether it’s with people, processes, or technology habits. Effecting change, however, means you need to step outside your comfort zone in order to truly transform.

"A culture of failure is, at the core,  a culture of learning."

An uncomfortable area that we had to embrace, in order to support cross-functional team collaboration, was the risk of failure. A culture of failure is, at the core,  a culture of learning. You need to look at your experiences and understand that while something may not have worked out the way you intended, those lessons will apply to your future experiences.

[ See our related story: 6 tips: Ease the pain on cross-functional teams. ]

Adopting this culture of failure is a team effort. You need to be in it together to take that risk, and if it doesn’t work out, you need to have discussions and move forward together to try it a different way.

Rethinking control

Embracing this new cross-functional way of working also means that you need to be okay with giving up control – another concept people avoid. When you work cross-functionally, you can’t control everything. You need to collaborate and work together in different ways.

"We put aside titles when we’re working across teams."

At Adobe, we put aside titles when we’re working across teams to encourage everyone to participate and contribute at the same level. That’s where change management comes into play. In today’s world, you can’t have total control over a project in order to complete it: You have to give up control and work together.  

One example of these two mindset changes in practice was our data-driven operating model, where we integrated data across the entire enterprise into a unified data architecture – to run the business, drive predictive data insights, and deliver personalization. It’s always challenging when you have to get everyone on board with definitions, KPIs, governance, and bring together the right level of insight.

This was truly a cross-functional effort in which everyone from finance to product teams came together to lay out the vision. People had to give up individual tools and move toward a new way of working. If an idea didn’t pan out in the way we expected it to, we learned from it and applied those lessons to new ideas.

3 keys to success

We’ve adopted three best practices that have helped us transition to a more cross-functional, collaborative environment: Defining team structures, focusing on building relationships, and promoting successes as one team.

For every initiative, we outline team structure to ensure that we have a cross-functional executive team sponsoring the effort. In the data-driven operating model example, it meant making sure we had the right data governance in place, which included an integrated data governance framework that provided the right data stewards, data definitions, business glossary, and system-enforced data lineage.

In any effort, you need to have a strong alignment around the stakeholders. Building these relationships, alignment, and understanding takes time. You need to learn how to operate as one team.

And finally, it’s important to promote your successes as one team. At an all-hands meeting, for example, you talk about your initiative, its success, and the lessons you learned together – not as the business, and not as IT. You’re both partners, and so you need to present the solutions and the outcomes together.

Bridging the gap between the old leadership rules and the more agile, cross-functional teams of today means rethinking our traditional definitions of failure, teams, and processes. These new approaches to collaboration have helped Adobe focus on the future by communicating better, working more effectively, and prioritizing innovation.

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As senior vice president and chief information officer of Adobe, Cynthia Stoddard oversees Adobe’s global Information Technology team. In her leadership role, Cynthia spearheads a global strategy for delivering services that form the mission-critical backbone for the company.