How to Build Cross-Functional Empathy When You’re Too Big to Fit in a Room and Don’t Need Another Meeting
When I was at Mailchimp, I started a bi-monthly cross-functional all-hands event. I was a co-producer of the event along with our Sr. Director of Engineering.
It sounds like just a meeting. It wasn’t. It was a production AND a program to generate cross-functional empathy for our customers and our teams.
We started with four observations after listening to our product teams:
- They didn’t feel connected to the broader community
- They were not clear on what was important to leaders
- They rarely heard about customer impact after they shipped
- They were no aware of all the projects that were happening
Then we formulated a hypothesis:
- We believed that if we created a forum where all cross-functional teams could come together and share stories that were aligned to certain themes, then we would drive greater empathy for each other and our customers.
We would know if we were successful when:
- 70% of the 550 person community attended the optional meeting
- Individual contributors volunteered to share
- Individual contributors inquired about future events
- Attendees expressed learning new customer and business insights
My co-producer and I chose to start with an all-hands fully remote meeting. This was before being forced to be all remote due to the pandemic. It was also contrary to our normal operations at Mailchimp. We liked to convene together in a large space and be presented to by senior leaders. It was rare to hear individual contributors speak.
My partner and I created a framework for hosting the event, which included recruiting, targeting themes, segments, feedback, and follow-up.
Initially, I led the recruiting for leadership and team content, communication campaign, and the live production (zoom, Q&A, back of house host functions, collection and review of feedback).
My partner managed the speaker preparation and served as the on-screen host. We traded and shared roles over time.
This is a high-level summary. If you would like to see more of the details and roles involved, you can read that here:
The Ultimate Guide to Running an Engaging Large Virtual Meeting
In this article I’m going to outline everything you need to consider before hosting a large virtual meeting.
Backing up a little
We started by interviewing senior leaders and cross-functional product team members. We focused on the core product disciplines of Product, Engineering, Design, and Marketing.
We interviewed roles from VP to individual contributor. The outcome was the list of observations above. It’s also worth noting that my partner and I started this whole program based on the hunch that product teams need greater visibility for greater alignment.
We ran some small tests
After gathering insights and forming a hypothesis, we began to test the meeting and sharing solution by taking advantage of the places where teams were already behaving that way.
We found the team’s retrospective and planning schedules and asked for volunteers that would be willing to make those practices visible to anyone outside the immediate team that was curious to learn.
We listened and watched
We made the schedules visible and planted seeds with other teams in slack to see if people would make the space to join. We observed the uptake in this low-stakes offer and interviewed those that chose to attend a meeting that wasn’t directly part of their scope.
We pulled the trigger and hosted the event
We slowly expanded the visibility and noticed enough attendance that we decided to host a more formal event.
It worked. We hit our initial goal of 70% attendance in our first session. The feedback was strong, the production needed improvement and the speakers needed more polish and the storyline needed tightening.
We iterated more based on feedback
So, we iterated from there building a speaker preparation offering. We worked with leadership to develop themes before putting out a call to action for speakers.
Before I left, we were replacing ourselves as the leaders. We created a host role and trained individual contributors on how to perform in that function.
We had also started to think about the event as a news production. We never go to the idea of ads, but it was on our list for making things engaging.
It may have sounded like just a meeting to those on the outside, but it wasn’t.
It was a production that required multiple roles and stakeholders to optionally commit their already busy time to something that was changing how we communicated and shared information internally.
I believe it was a success because the true content creators were the ones closest to the work AND it was what they wanted to hear from other teams. We listened hard and iterated over time and ultimately did what most people consider impossible. We created a meeting in a corporate setting that people choose to attend.