Beyond the buzzwords: 7 companies on how collaboration shaped their products

by Andreas Rekdal
November 9, 2017

Many companies talk a big game about valuing collaboration, but how does that really help push innovation?

At Home Chef, employees from warehouses, customer service and tech come together to optimize fresh food packaging based on real-time weather reports. At Cars.com, cross-functional product pods push new features many times faster than the team did just one year ago. At Gesture, front-line employees are invited to weigh in about new product upgrades before they go live.

We spoke with them, and several other Chicago tech companies to learn more about how collaboration fuels their products and processes.

 

carsdotcom chicago tech company

One of Chicago’s biggest digital brands, Cars.com is an online marketplace that connects car shoppers with dealers across the country. Over the past year, the company has restructured its tech teams to foster more cross-functional collaboration. According to Tony Zolla, chief product officer, that’s helped his team increase its rate of deployments several times over.

What sets Cars.com’s approach to collaboration apart?

We believe that diversity of thought leads to better solutions, and that effective collaboration is the key to unlocking that diversity. What this means to us is to speak up, be heard and work together — but not just in a consensus-driven way. We welcome hard conversations with colleagues because they make us better. We rely on each other to build upon each other’s ideas and find the best solutions to complex problems. Teams and colleagues should be each other’s toughest critics — and loudest supporters.

How do you build processes that allow this collaboration to happen?

Our product development approach is centered around the concept of “pods,” which are essentially cross-functional mini startups within the company. Individual pods develop new products from front to back. Having multiple skill sets on one team allows us to move faster than ever, because we’re jointly focused on solving the problem at hand.

This approach has helped us transition from 30 product releases a year to averaging several hundred a month. And when all members of the team are there throughout the process, they gain a shared body of knowledge and point of view of the solution, which is critical to team health and energy.

 

adage technologies chicago company

Adage Technologies is a design and development firm that specializes in e-commerce. The company has adopted the Scrum methodology to speed up collaboration, but it also hosts regular meetings that let employees exchange ideas and best practices they uncover with members of other teams.

What sets Adage Technologies’ approach to collaboration apart?

Victoria Deresz, talent operations manager: Being a good teammate is part of our core values. Everyone is expected to help one another succeed, provide feedback and recognize contributions. We’re organized into scrum teams so people are able to collaborate on multiple projects at a time, but we also encourage cross-team collaboration through departmental “confabs.” Those weekly meetings allow people to share knowledge, ideas and best practices with people in similar roles so that we can still collaborate with those we don’t work with day-to-day.

How does your collaborative approach shape your final products?

Ashwin Venkitakrishnan, JavaScript developer: Every project is a team effort, but one of our recently launched products, SmartSeat, came out of collaboration of individuals across different teams.

The plugin architecture of the product it replaced allowed for customizations specifically per client, which made it challenging to manage the product over the long run. To solve that problem, a group of employees formed a product team to build a newer architecture that focused on creating independent components using React and standardizing customizations across all clients using a flip-switch for each customization. This allows clients to get the features they want, try out a customization and turn it off if they don't want it.

 

payformance solutions chicago software firm

Payformance Solutions is building a new technology platform that lets healthcare providers get paid for the quality of the care they provide, rather than the quantity. In addition to daily scrums across the company, Payformance hosts regular all hands meetings to exchange ideas with its parent organization, Altarum Institute, which conducts health systems research across the country.

What sets Payformance Solutions’ approach to collaboration apart?

Alicia Torres, CFO and SVP of New Ventures, Altarum Institute: Collaboration is in our DNA. Altarum, a non-profit health systems research and advisory firm, created Payformance to help accelerate healthcare payment reform from volume-based to value-based contracts and other alternative payment models. Payformance exists to enable collaboration between payers and providers, eliminating the silos that exist as they contract new and innovative payment models. Building a value-based ecosystem where all parties can at least agree on what is being measured will exponentially streamline the process and drive provider adoption.

How does your collaborative approach shape your final products?

Kevin Mehta, CTO: Our flagship product, TrustHub, was developed by a collaborative team between Altarum and Payformance. TrustHub, a cloud-based contracting platform, enables the design, negotiation and ongoing monitoring of value-based contracting and other alternative payment models.

Brett Furst, strategic advisor: TrustHub provides enough transparency to drive value-based innovation while balancing granularity to allow payers and providers to privately come to an accord on performance measurement and reimbursement. This was achieved through the use of statistical science and analytics that has been developed over the past decade at Altarum.

 

With its suite of event service procurement solutions, Eved helps event managers keep their events on track and on budget. Implementation director Alex Milling said her team’s flat structure and open floor plan make it easy to exchange ideas and quickly hash out solutions to problems as they emerge.

What sets Eved’s approach to collaboration apart?

Our wide-open office space, without dividing cubicles, allows teams to work together immediately. Our team often keeps project plans on our windows and refers to them to create constant, productive conversation that helps us execute on ideas quickly. Eved is also flat, in that all team members, from the CEO and COO to the help desk team, encourage each other to address tasks of all complexities and urgency; this creates an excitement as executed ideas come from all levels of our company.

How does that collaboration shape the way you work?

One of our clients reached out one morning for a solution to an urgent business need. Immediately, all team members in Chicago and Romania, rallied, communicated and started brainstorming on a solution that could work on a global scale. By the end of the day we first heard about the problem, we called our client back with a global solution and implemented immediately.

 

home chef chicago ecommerce company

Based in Chicago, Home Chef is a meal kit delivery service that specializes in dinners that can be cooked in 30 minutes. Planning out menus and delivering fresh food across the country is a massive logistical undertaking. For that reason, said VP of people Lisa Bomrad, Home Chef maintains a flat hierarchy that lets employees across its supply chain, customer support and technology teams put their heads together to find ways to unlock new efficiencies.

What sets Home Chef’s approach to collaboration apart?

One of the benefits of being a relatively new company is that we were able to build a collaborative system from the start. Whether it’s a new recipe that a parent can easily make on a busy weeknight or creating a new sorting and packaging process that we need to effectively communicate to our associates at the distribution center, we’re focused on building processes and systems to better connect us.

How does that approach help shape your final products?

One recent example of collaboration on our team was an improvement we made in our temperature-controlled boxes to reduce ice package waste and improve the customer experience. It’s easy to imagine the negative impact of a box that’s too warm during shipping — wilted vegetables and warm meat — but having a box that’s too cold can also be a problem. Too many ice packs increase unnecessary waste and can sometimes be heavy enough to bruise the produce.

Our customer satisfaction, operations and technology teams worked together to develop a temperature control algorithm to incorporate real-time weather data for the package’s destination and during travel to predict how many ice packs each box would need during shipping. In addition to reducing the package’s weight, it’s helped us make sure that our delicious ingredients reach our customers in the perfect condition.

 

hs2 solutions chicago dev shop

HS2 Solutions is a design and technology firm that works with brands on everything from custom software development and UX design to marketing strategy and data analytics. To help spread knowledge throughout the organization, founder and president Keith Schwartz said, HS2 has developed workflows to connect employees closely with people both inside and outside their own departments.

What sets HS2 Solutions’ approach to collaboration apart?

With our clients, we collaborate across different dimensions of our engagements, for instance during strategy definition, design ideation and possibly co-development. Our people tend to have deep experience, which gives them confidence and an intellectual curiosity that allows them to explore new thoughts and ideas. The second thing that sets us apart is the degree of transparency we have with our clients. We strive to be long-term trusted advisors, and you can only develop a level of trust with clients when you operate with great transparency.

On the internal dimensions, cross-team collaboration — for instance between designers and developers or quality engineers and business analysts or developers — is also quite high. Our teams are always looking for ways to improve our processes, and working with peers both with the same skills and from other competency groups is a requirement to do that. And our improved processes themselves reinforce collaboration.

How does that collaboration help shape your final products?

Our company hosts a hackathon every year where team members identify ideas, form teams and try to develop a concept, learn a technology or improve a process. These efforts are highly collaborative, as team members have just 36 hours to learn the tech, develop the concept and then present to the rest of the company. We have several concepts we have developed that we have taken to clients, including one we call Square Peg — a module that serves dynamic content in real time. Think of a highly personalized dynamic email module that might check the weather and time of day.

 

gesture chicago technology firm

For Gesture, which makes mobile technology used by charities to raise money from donors, technology will always be front and center. But a major force behind the platform’s success, said sales director Dianne Kleber, is an emphasis on integrating client feedback and observations from front-line employees into product decisions. Gesture invites representatives from every department to review new releases before they go live, inviting them to weigh in if anything doesn’t look quite right.

What sets Gesture’s approach to collaboration apart?

While the development team builds our technology, the rest of our team are the ones using the platform and speaking with our charity partners every day. If they spot something that could be enhanced or hear an idea from a client, they’re encouraged to share it and help determine how people will use the new feature and how it should look on the site. Our product wouldn’t be as effective as it is without the feedback from every team member and those collaboration efforts.

It’s hard to retain a customer without collaboration among different teams. Account executives sell the first event before handing the account over to an account manager, ensuring that all information is properly transferred. Then, if there’s a product feature that could be improved for the client, the AM loops in the development team. By the time the client is ready to discuss renewal, the goal is that our internal collaboration will have created a smooth and easy experience for the client and they’ll be excited to partner with us.

What are some specific enhancements that came about this way?

In 2016, we introduced our amazing guest management product. The input from everyone helped the development team understand exactly what our charity partners want and need. More recently, myself and the other sales directors were brainstorming ideas for a sales contest. We wanted it to be something that our team members would really get excited about. We decided to ask the marketing team for ideas, and they came up with a “Game of Closes” contest themed off of the TV show “Game of Thrones.” I’m glad I asked, because when we announced the competition, everyone was excited.

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