By Maria Tovpinets and Cesario Ramos
In 1986, two scientists investigated companies that had taken a new approach to product development. They selected each product on the basis of its impact, its visibility within the company as part of a “breakthrough” development process, the novelty of the product features at the time, the market success of the product, and the access to and availability of data on each product.
This research would then be reflected in a great article “The New New Product Development Game” that became the basis for the Scrum framework.
They learned that leading companies show some common characteristics in managing their new product development processes and one of them was multi-learning.
“Because members of the project team stay in close touch with outside sources of information, they can respond quickly to changing market conditions. Team members engage in a continual process of trial and error to narrow down the number of alternatives that they must consider. They also acquire broad knowledge and diverse skills, which help them create a versatile team capable of solving an array of problems fast.
Such learning by doing manifests itself along two dimensions: across multiple levels (individual, group, and corporate) and across multiple functions. We refer to these two dimensions of learning as “multi-learning.”
In the development of a product, having team members that together have all the skills to solve the problem at hand, encourages team autonomy and ownership. In situations where the number of required skills to solve a customer problem exceeds the number of team members available, it is crucial that the team members themselves have a diverse skill set. Furthermore, when a team member becomes overloaded with work, the other team members can help so that they can move forward as a team.
It’s been almost 40 years, and creating multi-learning culture in organizations is still a challenge. Let’s explore why.
Three key problems that prevent the creation of a multi-learning culture
1. The problem of emphasizing narrow career development tracks
Narrow development areas refer to a specialized or focused set of skills or career paths in a particular competency. It means narrowing down one’s focus in terms of education, and training to become an expert in a particular area, rather than pursuing a broader range of areas. Narrow development tracks can help individuals acquire in-depth knowledge and expertise in a specific area, which can lead to better job prospects and career advancements. Often, individual goals and performance appraisals in an organization are tied to the level of development of single individual competence.
Creating a product requires many skills and competencies and is therefore done in teams. The workload across specialties is mostly uneven and variable in a complex environment, which means such teams are highly susceptible to bottlenecks. Peak loads on a specific competence may vary from iteration to iteration, so the bottleneck moves from specialty to specialty and from team to team.
Therefore, create a team whose members can work on several types of tasks —a team of multifunctional specialists.
Wondering how to achieve this? Here are some options to consider.
Multifunctional development tracks
Ideally, people in your team are experts in multiple skills, but unfortunately, these people are hard to find. As an alternative, you can create conditions that encourage people to develop into multi-skilled specialists over time.
Begin to focus on career pathways that reward people for acquiring multiple skills. Clearly articulate criteria in the job evaluation or promotion system for career paths that emphasize the development of a broader skill set.
In order to determine a skill set for development, try creating a Star Map, a simple competency matrix that visualizes the cross-functionality of a particular team. It identifies knowledge gaps and potential bottlenecks.
Furthermore, create a system of human operations that:
- Values employees by a combination of personal and team accomplishments
- Values people who become multi-skilled specialists
- Maintains a balance between deep specialists and generalists in the teams
An organization can accomplish this goal by creating a multi-skilled growth system that allows people to create their own job paths. Figure 1 shows such a value system.
Figure 1 Multi-skilled value system (source: C. Ramos & I. Pavlichenko, Creating Agile Organizations, 2022)
The most valued members are the rare multi-skilled specialists. People with a deep single-skill proficiency are valued as much as people who have average proficiency in multiple skills. The role descriptions are left generic in Figure 1 so that they are decoupled from specific skills and technology—because success is about the skills people want to learn, rather than about the skills people currently have.
Finding the balance between deep specialists and multi-skilled team members
The exact skills needed within a team change over time, so the specific skills are better not fixed. Also, the exact balance between deep specialists and generalists depends upon the team context and the required skills to develop the product. Therefore, the human operations systems let the teams figure out:
- What is the best balance?
- Which team members develop what skills?
The teams have the responsibility to ensure that they grow into effective Agile teams, and the management is there to support them in doing so.
To learn more, we recommend that you read Guideline 12: “Multi-skill Development” from the book “Creating Agile Organizations.”
2. The problem of functional management conflicting with multi-functional development
Such a problem is likely to appear in organizations with a matrix structure. On the one hand, the people report to their functional line manager for individual performance appraisal and development in their track. Thus, it is not in the interest of the functional manager to allow for multi-functional development.
For example, if I’m a Junior Java developer, my functional line manager’s job is to help me to develop my skills in Java.
On the other hand, the people report to a business area manager for product development. The goal of a business area manager is to develop a product in which a wider range of skills is needed.
For example, if the QA specialist is a bottleneck in our team, the business area manager will want the bottleneck to be resolved by e.g. expanding the QA skills of other team members or hiring more QA people.
Two managers have different goals for skill development, which leads to conflict.
Therefore, create a cross-functional manager improving the cross-functional team as a whole
Cross-functional line managers don’t have any authority to give work to the teams. Instead, they focus on improving the organizational design and team effectiveness and help individuals to develop in service of overall team performance.
3. High levels of utilization and subsequent lack of time for learning
In a resource efficiency paradigm, organizations strive to “attach work to resources” to maximize the amount of time that a resource stays busy. Under full utilization, there is limited space for innovation, creativity, or learning. Why? If a team has a tight schedule, muscle memory makes people exploit their primary specializations and current skills instead of sharing knowledge and looking for innovative ways to solve the problem. More about this issue in the documentation for the Scrum pattern “Teams That Finish Early Accelerate Faster.”
Therefore, introduce Slack Time to Develop Multi-skilled Specialists
We recommend using the Slack Time practice described in eXtreme Programming. It is a time buffer that a team explicitly designates in an iteration for multi-functional learning.
Slack is the time when reinvention happens. It is a time when you are not 100 percent busy doing the operational business of your firm. Slack at all levels is necessary to make the organization work effectively and grow.
Slack time has many forms and could be used for the following activities:
- Book clubs
- Self-directed discovery and exploration time
- Adding tests to legacy code
- Paying off technical debt
- Architectural redesign
- Participating in communities of practice
- Working on general improvement items.
Having multi-skilled team members in product development teams is crucial for team autonomy and ownership, especially in situations where a diverse skill set is required to solve a customer problem.
However, creating a multi-learning culture in organizations is a challenging task that requires addressing several issues. These challenges include re-evaluating narrow development tracks, addressing the problem of functional management conflicting with multi-functional development, and avoiding high levels of utilization that lead to a lack of time for learning.
To overcome these challenges, organizations must create multifunctional development tracks (see also guideline 11 of the book “Creating Agile Organizations”), create a cross-functional manager with the team reporting to him and a shared Product Goal for a team or product group, and allow Slack Time to Develop Multi-skilled Specialists. By addressing these issues, organizations can create a culture that fosters learning and the development of multi-skilled teams, which can ultimately lead to higher adaptability.
 Creating Agile Organizations, chapter 10, C. Ramos & I. Pavlichenko, 2022.
 Scrum Pattern “Teams That Finish Early Accelerate Faster”