In Scrum, we strive for cross-functionality, a foundational element in teamwork. However, I experience people having different interpretations and misunderstandings of it. The most common ones are:
1. You have to be able to do everything
2. It’s only useful when someone’s on holiday or sick leave
3. People don’t want to learn other skills
First, let’s look at the definition in the Scrum Guide:
Cross-functional teams have all competencies needed to accomplish the work without depending on others not part of the team.
In perfect Scrum, we have one Scrum team that has all the competencies to deliver the Product. We’re not only talking about developing and testing, but also sales, marketing, operations, accounting, etc
You might think: “This is not realistic”.
You’re right and that’s fine! It’s a perfection goal that you will never achieve but is still really valuable. It gives direction and guides you in your improvement process.
The main advantage of having a cross-functional team is that it can take on a problem and solve it completely and will never be blocked.
Other advantages are:
- Full autonomy and ownership
- Less handoffs and waste (rework)
- Shorter feedback loops
- Increased learning
- Increased diversity (better insights, more creativity)
- Increased engagement of team members
- Exercising management and communication skills
- Foster understanding
Let’s look at the misunderstandings:
1: You have to be able to do everything
The idea is that all competencies exist on the team level, not on the individual level. So not everybody should be able to do everything. Being specialised in everything is a contradictio in terminis. It still makes perfect sense to be very good in one skill; the difference lies in the fact that you should not limit yourself to that single skill. You should at least be able to do the work of one of your team members, and it doesn’t matter if it takes you ten times longer. This way, you’re not only more adaptable as a team, having an understanding of other skills is beneficial for your expertise as well.
When work calls for an additional individual for each required skill, the team will become too big to be effective.
2: It’s only useful when someone’s on holiday or sick leave
In these scenarios, the benefits are very apparent. Even though a colleague is absent, the work continues. However, it’s not worthwhile to invest in cross-functionality just for these less common situations.
The main advantage of cross-functionality is in day-to-day work! This is because work never distributes evenly. There’s always a bottleneck! Most people see this clearly when having component teams, where a front-end team has to wait for the back-end team. But only a few realise this also continuously happens within the team.
People have to be ready when the work comes in. A tester, for example, has to be ready when a piece of functionality is delivered, or a requirements engineer has to be available when there are questions about the requirements. The teams should work in such a way that there is enough room to absorb variation in demand, again keeping work queues small and, therefore, the ability to react to opportunities high.
3: People don’t want to learn other skills
In practice, a lot of people only develop a single skill. I think this has mostly to do with the organisations they’re working in and less with their willingness to learn a secondary skill.
The majority of current HR policies promote increasing your single skill. It’s challenging to change this to a culture where having multiple skills is promoted, especially when working with external vendors, who have bring their own policies.
Taking these incentives out of the equation, there are three things that motivate people: purpose, autonomy and mastery. A developer loves to write clean code all day and a tester tests (think: mastery). Tap even more into intrinsic motivators by learning secondary skills. This way, the team is blocked less (think: autonomy) and delivers more value (think: purpose).
The team model in Scrum is designed to optimise flexibility, creativity, and productivity.
There are major benefits of cross-functional teams and having multi-skilled team members, which are often underestimated.
… It’s not a matter of believing, but understanding.
Jowen has a background as a software engineer. As a Scrum Master, he is now fully committed to guiding companies in their agile adoption. He coaches individuals, teams and management. He loves to share knowledge and is a co-teacher for several classes. He is also the co-founder and chairman of a successful .NET user group.