October 26, 2021

Crossing Divides

Woman climbing a ladder over a wall

A lot of talk in the Agile space centres on breaking down silos, and yet it appears that in practice it is one of the things that is met with the most inertia.

When individuals identify with only one particular domain or specialism, coaching a team towards higher levels of cross-functionality becomes very difficult. While this mentality exists, no matter how the team has been put together, there is always an underlying attitude of “I am a designer”, “I am a coder”, “I am a tester”, “I am a copywriter” etc. from people, almost inevitably leading to the related “that’s not my job” reaction when looking outside of someone’s area of expertise.

That is not to say that progress has not been made on breaking down the divides. It is common to see teams now made up of people from different disciplines. However, in my experience (which has mainly been within the software development industry) many of these teams appear to be thought of and treated as a delivery capability. Skills such as business analysis, design and architecture reside outside of the team. Such organisations have tweaked team makeups so that “delivery” people work in the same team, but essentially they have kept traditional structures in place with functional reporting lines and handovers of work into and out of the team. We see mini-waterfalls and handoffs within the team, and people seeking approval from, or escalating issues to, managers outside. At the same time managers continue to direct and impose decisions with limited autonomy granted. The old divides remain, despite efforts at Agile adoption.

With organisations that are structured to have cross-functional teams, the challenge is one of sharing knowledge across them, where one team’s experience could benefit other teams. “Communities of Practice”, where groups of functional specialists come together from across the teams to share experience is a common practice. A space like this for specialists to collaboratively hone their craft and continuously improve together can be powerful and an important part of creating a learning organisation. 

There is a delicate balancing act though. Only people with a job title of programmer get invited to the coders community of practice, only testers go to the quality assurance community of practice, and only Scrum Masters attend the Agile community of practice. The risk is of excluding those outside of functionally defined boundaries. 

At one company I worked at, a community of practice grew organically in the shape of a once a week “brown-bag” lunchtime session where anyone from across the several Scrum Teams could facilitate a discussion or present a subject of their choosing. This was driven by the team members themselves, not an Agile Coach or manager. It was entirely voluntary, and attendees came from all functional areas. It was a great example of openness to sharing, learning and inclusivity.

Conferences and meetups are another great way for people to broaden knowledge. There are a plethora of events for all kinds of specialisms, including Agile conferences and meetups. Agile itself is often described in various forms; a mindset, a way of working, a set of values. Whatever the definition, Agile is something that is applicable across the team or organisation adopting it. Therefore learning more about agility should be something that is open to everyone involved or wanting to be involved in it. A richer diversity of people attending these events beyond people identifying themselves as a Scrum Master or Agile Coach can only be a good thing. To compound the issue, the price of many conferences is a barrier for many, inadvertently limiting the range of personas that attend these events to a few specialists. 

One of the best conferences that I have attended did a great job of accessibility and inclusivity. As well as sessions on Agile, subjects ranged from new development tools, facilitation techniques, build pipelines, TDD workshops, case studies and much more. Speakers were from a wide range of backgrounds including first-time speakers as well as veterans, all passionate about their subject. The cost of entry was affordable, with organisers running it as a not-for-profit event. An event like this was a great forum for people from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and skills to come together whatever their job title.

So we can say that breaking down silos requires going further than removing the obvious tangible divides (such as by co-locating teams or by providing enabling technology for virtual face-to-face communication). It is about encouraging a sense of inclusivity in how people work, and how people learn. Having teams made up of people with different functional skills is only a start.

The goal is not to create cross-functional people, where everyone on a team has all skills. Such a proposition is unrealistic in the majority of organisations. What can instead be sought is creating true collaboration and a sense of collective accountability. To really be collaborative, people need to have a collective empathy. For example, if a particular team member does not have the skills for a particular task, they can still empathise for what needs to be done and the challenges involved. The team as a whole feels the problems they face and they take responsibility together. 

To extend this further, we can talk about building empathy beyond the boundaries of the team. Managers, organisational leaders and business partners that empathise with the challenges that the team has for the work that they do. Team members themselves having empathy with the pressures and expectations that managers have. Collaboration and empathy with 3rd party suppliers. And empathy for the users and customers of our products whose problems we are trying to solve. The potential for improvement and high performance through building greater empathy, collective learning, understanding, and collaboration is immense. This is part of the Agile mindset we should be seeking to foster across a team and across an organisation.

With some creative thinking and coaching, we can encourage and enable inclusivity within our teams and organisations. Examples include moving away from job titles, policies that make teams as a whole accountable for quality, setting teams goals to achieve instead of tasks to complete, pairing, shadowing, taking a gemba walk, increased transparency of things such as financials and budgets, as well as openness to attendance of communities of practice, conferences and meetups even if the theme is outside of someone's traditional specialism. This may feel daunting for some, but exposure outside of people’s own area is a starting point.

Breaking down the divides and silos is an important part of the culture shift towards greater agility. The results are motivated and committed individuals, greater innovation, flexibility and responsiveness, and a continuous learning culture. All this should lead to high performing teams and market leading organisations. 

As leaders and coaches, I believe it is part of our job to help people to cross the divides.

Feature photo by Charlota Blunarova on Unsplash