Making Cross-Functional Teams Work: Going on a Customer Safari with an Agile Team

Making Cross-Functional Teams Work: Going on a Customer Safari with an Agile Team

Agile is the popular software development methodology that is making its way into business team circles. Safari is the proven positioning and new product qualitative optimization process developed by the Cambridge Group. Although developed by very different professionals, the two methodologies share many similar elements and goals, especially the primacy of cross-functional teams to the process. Below, see what Agile and Safari share:

Making Cross-Functional Teams Work: Going on a Customer Safari with an Agile Team

Introduction to Safari

This methodology gets its name from the extensive travel to several customer markets required from the team—as they travel with the needed luggage, it looks like they are “going on a safari.” I became proficient in Safari after practicing for several years with the guidance of former Safari partners and mentors Larry Burns and Rick Kash, author of How Companies Win and New Law of Demand and Supply. As one client remarked,

“Your concepts [derived from Safari] always test well quantitatively. That’s not the case with other methods.” [Safari is anything but] asking the customers if they like an idea that the company has already developed and pushing them to say yes.”

Introduction to Agile

Agile is relatively simple to understand, but it takes time to learn how to practice the methodology and to get other team members on board with practicing it. Since Agile comes from the software development world, its manifesto has a few parts that are software-specific. For anyone who is unfamiliar, here are the core principles of Agile:

  • Individual and Interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Role of Cross-Functional Teams

Collaborative co-creation is foundational to both Safari and Agile. There are several activities built into the methodologies that help teams achieve good outcomes.

The role of the cross-functional team in Safari is to listen intently to the customer feedback and to examine operational implementation considerations. After each of the twelve rounds of customer feedback, the team debriefs each idea, and the feedback, following a disciplined technique. More is learned from customers who say “no” and do not like the concept than those who agree. The ideas that the cross-functional team and the customer have collaboratively developed are already vetted cross-functionally and can be done.

With Agile, User Stories are a tool to create collaboration around a narrative. As defined by the Agile Alliance:

“In consultation with the customer or product owner, the team divides up the work to be done into functional increments called ‘user stories.’ Each user story is expected to yield, once implemented, a contribution to the value of the overall product, irrespective of the order of implementation.”

This element is identical to Safari, which uses concepts as a tool to create collaboration among a cross-functional team. In addition, Daily Stand Up Meetings facilitate interaction and sharing information vital for coordination. By standing up and keeping the meeting to 15 minutes, participants are more energized and focused.

Iterative Improvements Driven by Data

Making Cross-Functional Teams Work: Going on a Customer Safari with an Agile TeamPrior to actual qualitative research in Safari, prework is completed to identify up to two target customer groups. There is a disciplined practice surrounding this recruitment, through screening and open-ended questions. Agile Personas are a similar device to design for the user experience. These detailed, synthetic biographies describe fictitious customers and include photographs and personal details.

During the Test and Learn process, Safari teams test 20-25 starting ideas with target customers. The team has a complete willingness to drop these ideas, add new ones and adapt them at each step, which typically happens twice a day during this phase. Test and Learn days are a minimum of twelve hours. It requires stamina to go on Safari!

Agile’s Incremental Development Strategy also favors iterative improvement that builds on the previous version and releases small upgrades in usability to users quickly. Feedback from users informs future User Stories, and the cycle continues. The same accountability for improvement is found in both Agile and Safari.

To Master Safari and Agile

Mastery of Safari and Agile both require an intuitive interpretation of research. In the Agile Development Coursera class by Alex Cowan, he warns against two sets of “twin faults” that prevent Agile mastery. The first pitfall is either assuming you know what’s best and not soliciting any customer input or, alternatively, doing precisely and literally what the customer says. Similarly, when listening to target customers, expert Safari practitioners focus on “what they mean, not what they say.” At the end of the Safari process, anyone who has participated will know in “their gut,” not just “their head” why the positioning idea works or the new product ideas address a meaningful consumer benefit and usage occasion.

Successful team co-creation also demonstrates mastery in these methodologies. The second pitfall Cowan identifies is when a team tends toward the extreme of either micromanagement or “you do your thing, I’ll do mine” with each person working independently and tossing their output over the wall. Structured team learning processes like Agile’s narrative collaboration or The Cambridge Group’s Safari process help avoid those problems.

Barriers to Safari and Agile

Some of the biggest barriers to Agile or Safari are a management team or corporate culture that cannot accept this work process, because of the work habits that many have formed over the years, along with our own human survival behaviors.

Also, in my experience, very few cross-functional teams at organizations with representatives from finance, legal, engineering, regulatory, science, marketing and sales are able to work full-time for months or years on a given initiative. Instead, time is negotiated for the representatives to work in an effective, intense fashion and then, to provide ongoing guidance or expertise when the effort is being vetted and moves forward. Beyond the core team, the broader organization’s expertise is also needed during the creation process. Safari allows those cross-functional participants a way to be in the collaborative narrative, while the core team guides its daily optimization. The goal is to allow people to participate from their expertise and strengths, not to ask everyone in the company to become an expert market research person or customer insights person or a copywriter.

Safari and Agile in Business-to-Business (B2B)

These approaches work well in business-to-business as well as business-to-consumer. Paul Hebert of Creative Group describes how his organization works to co-create with their large customers:

“We use co-creation, and ‘how might we?’ activities, with structured brainstorming over a day-and-a-half process to create marketing and incentive programs for our clients. While this process allows us to solve for the issues we wanted to focus on, many times we’ve been able to surface unrecognized client business challenges even if they fall outside our functional support area. Finding and understanding these new challenges usually improves our solutions and makes them more effective. In addition, the client leaves our experience with new initiatives to address to make their business better. That is real value-add. And it would never have happened without a co-creation process.”

Cross-functional teams who co-create are important to efficiently develop and deliver products and customer experiences. Following a proven, structured methodology like Agile or Safari is critical to avoiding well-documented pitfalls and barriers to this work style.

Michal Clements is a classically-trained strategy and operations professional (Booz-Allen, The Cambridge Group, Kraft, Merrill Lynch).  Through her consulting work at Insight to Action, she helps leaders and teams find solutions to business challenges in a diverse range of industries and clients. She is also a published author, and speaks and writes regularly on the workplace and markets. 

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    Michal is co-author of Tuning Into Mom and an experienced consultant. Michal develops winning growth strategies and detailed go to market plans for some of the world’s outstanding organizations including McDonald’s, Gatorade, Abbott, Barilla, Tylenol, Clorox, Key Bank, Eagle Ottawa, Quaker and the Baker Demonstration School.

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