Cross-functionality – When do you need an upgrade in your product development alphabet?
How many times have you heard statements such as, “This is not in my area of expertise”, “I don't know anything about it”, “That’s not my job”, “Ask another department” or “This is not what I studied for”? One might say that this is just their approach to gaining knowledge. It’s their style; to limit their scope of learning by concentrating on their specialism only, which doesn’t necessarily sound like a problem when speaking of experts in their fields, but what about organizations, products, and the services they provide? How does this previously mentioned approach to learning and self-development affect them?
Whenever the concept of a new product is born, organizations focus on the needed competencies and start building the team that has to take over the challenge of developing it. Very often, managers are tempted to look for individuals that are skilled on all or most of the competencies, thinking that this is the most straightforward and efficient way to nail the product development and deliver early. Others who are driven by similar needs look for experts who specialize in very specific areas. What would be most beneficial for your product’s development? What kind of behaviors and attitudes should you promote in your working environment?
This is not only a story about individuals. It’s about collaboration and openness, and speaking of collaboration, I am pleased to inform you that this article was written in cooperation with Stefano Milanesi; a fantastic Agile Coach and consultant whom I was lucky to meet on my professional journey.
Our story begins here
(It might as well be the story of your team or some team around you. We’re wondering if you’ll notice any similarities!)
A customer of Stefano asked for help in order to create a team for a new software product. The customer was a system integrator and relied on highly skilled software and system engineers. The software that they were developing was an industrial IOT platform that had huge interactions with network devices and other electronic hardware.
They came up with this solution: “We have to create a team composed of a new kind of technician, one where each individual will have both software and system engineering deep skills”. They intended to do that by moving people from their offices to an open space where concepts were to flow freely from developers to system engineers and vice versa. Thus, giving birth to a new kind of hybrid technical profile that could nail any aspect of the product development.
Is this the right solution? Does the Scrum Guide give some direction?
It does indeed: “Scrum Teams are cross-functional, meaning the members have all the skills necessary to create value each Sprint.” .
The question is…
Is cross-functionality about the individuals or is it a quality of the Scrum team?
“New renaissance people”: the archaeology of cross-functionality
Let’s pick an example from the IT world. During the late 80s and the early 90s, the answer to our question would have been almost trivial. Back then, a software engineer could handle and often master almost any technology necessary in order to develop a software product. Most developers were usually knowledgeable about coding, databases, operating systems and deployment techniques; they were indeed highly cross-skilled individuals (maybe we could even call them “new renaissance people”). From then, things started to change and almost every aspect of the product development needed deeper knowledge and mastery. Is it worth it or even possible to concentrate all knowledge on every individual of the team? Many managers who have been influenced by the 80s heritage tend to think that cross-skilled individuals fulfill the cross-functionality concept. They’re driven by the thought that an organization will get the most value when everyone inside a team can be deemed as disposable and easily replaced by the team.
To be cross-skilled or not to be
Nowadays, being “deeply” cross-skilled in every aspect needed for product development is almost impossible, and probably isn’t a value when compared to the costs involved. Think about the team consisting of hardware and software experts. From the safety and regulatory points of view, hardware engineers need to be trained and licensed in order to work with industrial machines. Typically, such training and licensing processes have to be renewed and require time and money. It might be reasonable to limit the number of people holding up-to-date licenses.
One can agree that there’s no point in having individuals with average knowledge in everything if this doesn’t help solve the challenges that require deeper skills. A team composed of people with only a general education won’t likely be able to create a complex and life-saving medical product. Moreover, often people just do not want to be highly skilled in multiple disciplines. They like mastering one specific area (“I want to be a front-end expert”). We witnessed several situations where people decided to leave the company after receiving such a request to spend a lot of their time on training in a brand new topic.
On the other hand, highly skilled people in one area only could generate knowledge silos and, consequently, that bottlenecks a limited throughput of work that could endanger the team’s efficiency and agility. Have you ever experienced a situation when the work of the whole team was stalled or hindered due to the unexpected absence of a team member with rare skills? This is a very common example caused by knowledge and skills silos.
It seems that having cross-functional individuals in your team might be difficult or impossible to attain. So, let’s take a look at the team as a whole.
The team shows up
What does it mean for the Scrum Team to be cross-functional? Basically, it means that they can craft usable, useful and valuable Increments without having to regularly rely on someone external to the team. This does not mean that they do not have the right to ask for help when they realize they need it. Having all the required skills inside the team can have several benefits:
- it makes it easier to interact with team mates;
- promotes a common understanding of the different aspects of product development;
- boosts collective problem solving;
- enforces empathy among the team members;
- keeps the whole team accountable for all product development activity;
- helps integrate the work done by people with different expertise;
- allows younger teammates to learn and grow with a wider and more comprehensive mindset.
It’s a lot about communication, collaboration, and integration. Just notice that the three terms typically have no meaning if connected to an individual. This is the answer to our question: cross-functionality is indeed about the team, the team that is able to continuously learn, improve and deliver valuable product Increments together.
“What about new renaissance people?” you may say. “What if I find such people who can work independently and deliver product Increments alone? Why should I invest in building the teams?” Noone says that the new renaissance people are as rare as unicorns. You can even create a team of one cross-skilled expert (one may argue whether one person constitutes a team; let’s put that to one side for now). When deciding to hire cross-skilled individuals and rely on them as an important part of your business, you have to take a few aspects into account.
- Random situations are a dime a dozen - remember about the bus factor! Not to mention the fact that people need rest and vacations, at least from time to time.
- If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together. Long term it might hardly be possible to scale your business and grow with only a small group of experts.
- To make the situation even more challenging, there is always a risk that at least some of those people may be lone wolves not used to working with other teammates. At the same time the need for cooperation and integration of work may increase with the product’s growth. The truth is that sometimes losing a very experienced and highly cross-skilled person that is not willing to collaborate and share their knowledge with others might be a blessing in disguise.
So what kind of people should you look for? Is there a middle-ground where we could land, one between individuals with average knowledge in everything and deeply cross-skilled experts?
Let’s take a look at the alphabet
We will start looking for answers to our subsequent questions in a certain alphabet. The alphabet that is slightly different from that sung at school or pre-school. It starts with “i’. “I-shaped” people are deeply experienced in just one skill and cannot rely on any other skill. The next letter is “t’. ”T-shaped” people can count on a wide breadth of different soft and hard skills and are deeply experienced in one skill. There are also other letters in our alphabet - we have “Pi-shaped” and “Comb-shaped” people, who are deeply experienced in two or more skills, respectively, in addition to having other skills. (If you also feel the comb is a pretty cool letter, welcome to the club!)
Drawing by Joanna Płaskonka
Imagine a person who is an expert in mechanical design, able to create very sophisticated mechanical elements and tools, order parts, and are able to verify whether everything is working properly in their point of view. However, their expertise ends at that point. They are lacking electrical knowledge and are not able to develop a SW that controls the mechanical tools. This is the I-shaped person focused on mechanics who doesn’t contribute to other aspects of product development. “Or do they? Hey, hey, after all, they must have some other useful skills and talents, right?”, you may say. Hold your horses, we will get to that soon. For now, to satisfy your curiosity - your thoughts could be correct.
When our expert engages in cooperation with others, they acquire knowledge and skills that increase their understanding of the created product and allow them to work effectively with their teammates. This is the moment when the letter I turns into the letter T. Another step that may happen is to acquire knowledge and qualifications related to electricity. A new element symbolizing new skills is added to the letter T - the letter Pi is formed. When an expert enters the world of software and begins to create code controlling created hardware, the way to become a Comb-shaped person opens to them. Of course, it won't be the symmetrical comb we usually brush our hair with - but that's probably what its beauty is all about.
You have likely guessed by now that the letters in our alphabet can have different thickness and width. Which means that even the same letters are different - a bit like zebras in a herd with a similar but still different pattern of stripes. Let us leave you with these fascinating observations and encourage you to explore the topic on your own. What is most important right now, is the letter T. The concept of T-shaped people who have enough knowledge to be a valuable team member able to communicate and collaborate with others is a strong candidate for the middle-ground that we are looking for.
Think about it deeper!
Let’s put things together and connect the dots - communication, collaboration, integration, and T-shaped individuals. How can we imagine it? Think about the symbolic representation of T-shaped people like a person standing with arms wide open. The message is: “I’m an individual, I’m deeply expert in my area, and at the same time I’m open to collaborating and communicating”. This is the kind of people and behavior we need to fulfill the collaboration and communication needs inside the product development team. And it is no accident that openness is one of Scrum values.
Photo from the private collection of Stefano Milanesi (depicting Stefano himself)
If you still doubt whether it makes sense, let’s go back to basics. Two out of four comparison statements from the Agile Manifesto emphasize the importance of people, interactions and collaboration :
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
This, combined with the Scrum values and principles might be a hint that we need people being open and able to work effectively together in our product development teams. Scrum does not require anyone to be a deeply cross-skilled person.
Boosting T-shape behavior
And how can we create an environment where people can obtain and eventually boost cross-functionality? How to unleash, foster and boost the T-Shaped behavior inside the team?
Do you remember our mechanical expert focused on one area only? Taking into account the experience and knowledge gained during their whole life so far, they have big potential for the letter T, even if it seems otherwise at first glance. There is a concept that people are naturally T-Shaped and that they just need to be put in the condition of unleashing their instinctive and natural breadth of skills . This can be done, for example, by helping the team to create a safe environment that actually promotes self-management. Self-management is possible when people collaborate; in order to collaborate, people unleash their natural skills that help them achieve the common goal. Not only do they unleash their natural skills, but they actually improve their way of integrating and cooperating (so they are learning new skills, making the peak of their letter T wider!). It is not a matter of “building” T-Shaped people, but to let people emerge with their innate capabilities by ways of fostering the right environment.
Some examples of actions that can be taken:
- Start with your recruitment process. When looking for new team members, promote collaboration and a continuous learning attitude.
- Embrace cross-functionality right from the beginning when a new person joins. Encourage an induction journey for new teammates, focused on the competencies required for the product development. This can be done by arranging actual training lessons on specific topics held by the teammates themselves. All the teammates are involved in turn or together in this training path.
- Let the people work together. Working in the same environment fosters communication, no matter if people belong to different departments of the organization. Bringing people together from R&D and marketing, for example, could look like a weird or chaotic decision, but it indeed has value.
- You could even consider reorganizing your teams. What would be the most beneficial setup that will help to maximize effective collaboration and collective intelligence of your teams? Do not restrict yourself to established patterns or styles of work organization. Remember that the customer wants to receive good quality service or product. They don’t care how you are organized inside the company.
- As an individual and part of the organization, be a living example and embrace the Scrum Values. Show respect for the team and let them learn from their mistakes. Don't blame people for issues that arise during work, but instead ask them, “What did we learn from this experience? What will we do to avoid making the same mistake in the future?” Show appreciation and praise people regularly, even for things that seem to be little. Admit personal shortcomings and mistakes - be transparent and consistent.
We need to make sure that we have the real Scrum Team, not a team consisting of isolated individuals or groups that only take care of part of the job. There is one product increment, created by a cross-functional team. The answer is not in the single individual, but in the team: it is all about the team.
Are you curious to know how our story ended?
The organization that asked for Stefano’s support decided to move to a nice open space for both software and system engineers along with two field experts. People were given no other objective than self-managing and focusing on the product. Teammates were not asked to mix their competencies and skills as it was supposed to be at first. Self-management was something pretty new for part of the team, and it was surprising how this created engagement and enthusiasm, especially for young people.
This brought team members to communicate and collaborate in order to organize activities. Moreover, it helped to create a shared language that allowed people to easily understand each other whilst keeping everyone's deep skills. No “extraordinary unicorn" was born. A cross-functional and self-managing team emerged instead.
- Today, being deeply cross-skilled in every aspect of product development is almost impossible for an individual. Cross-functionality allows the team to rely on the competencies needed for delivering product increments without external dependencies. Thus, if your team has to regularly look for support, it might be a sign for you to act on it.
- People are naturally T-shaped. Promote thinking “My job description does not limit myself, my talents, and skills”. In order to unleash people’s potential, it is necessary to set the right stage for the team by creating a safe environment. This can be done in several ways: the Scrum values are the bedrock.
- The answer to the effectiveness of cross-functionality resides in the team and in their ability to communicate and collaborate. Collaboration helps create a shared language. A shared language increases and optimizes communication and keeps the team together. Together means we can go far and achieve even the most challenging of goals.
 Scrum Guide ver. 2020, https://scrumguides.org/scrum-guide.html
 Manifesto for Agile Software Development, https://agilemanifesto.org/
 Gunther Verheyen - T-Shape deception, https://www.scrum.org/resources/blog/t-shape-deception