One of the challenges for organizations, when they move to agile ways of working, is the often mentioned need to build teams made up of “T-shaped” people. This can also be described as a cross-functionality. The Scrum Guide describes cross-functionality as:
“Cross-functional teams have all competencies needed to accomplish the work without depending on others not part of the team.”
The “T-shaped” representation comes from the idea that an individual can possess deep skills in a few areas as well as a broader range of shallower skills.
Common challenges faced in making of “T-shaped” People:
For many people this concept can be a challenge because:
- Historically organizations are built around teams of similarly skilled individuals.
- Management lines follow these organizational structures too, e.g. Sales Manager.
- Entire careers are built by specializing in highly sought-after skill sets, e.g. Code developers.
- There is a common misunderstanding that because each person should be T-shaped each person must possess every skill needed to deliver.
The Problem while having traditional approach:
The traditional approach of building teams around common skills and components has a number of problems in the complex world we now dwell:
- There is a large coordination cost in order to move a piece of work through all the required areas, it is traditionally the role of project management to manage the dependencies that this causes
- Knowledge will be lost during the handoffs between various specializations, decisions made up the chain will be lost as work moves through various teams
- Individuals become highly siloed in skill set and product knowledge, the motivation to expand skills and knowledge becomes more difficult
- The “it’s not my job” attitude can become prevalent where individuals have no motivation to be responsible for anything more than their specific component
A Common Misunderstanding:
The common misunderstanding within many organizations that a specific person has to possess every skill is a challenge. In reality, an individual person within a team doesn’t have to possess every skill in order to be T-shaped, the whole team does.
The Benefits in adapting “T-shaped” approach:
By building a team with a mix of skills rather than around a specific skill set, the organization will be able to:
- Minimize dependencies between teams, resulting in fewer challenges with coordination and differing priorities
- Reduce handoffs between knowledge silos, avoiding information loss
- Broaden and deepen the individual team members skills over time through collaboration
- Foster team ownership of the whole solution rather than specific slices.
Even with all the cross-skilling in the world, some tasks will always require experts. But cross-skilling still helps in those instances, because the non-experts can help by relieving the expert of simpler tasks so they can tackle the bottleneck.
In the short term, perceived productivity will go down, because learning and growth always slow us down initially. But in the medium term, it improves quality, which increases throughput going forward.
The most important point to remember is that cross-skilling and skills matrixes only work when people don’t feel compelled. We can create the space where people choose to grow and cross-skill, but we can’t force them to learn.
Careful planning, consideration, and understanding of what makes a successful high-performing team will result in an organization that will be better placed to deliver value to its customers.