You will often hear agile teams described as cross-functional or at least aspiring to be. When a team is defending why they haven’t completed something at the end of a sprint and cries “the development is done, we have passed it over to the testers!”, or “it’s just waiting for dev ops to deploy it to production”…someone will often respond with “I thought you were supposed to be a cross-functional team?”.
So, what is a cross-functional team and how would having a truly cross-functional team help address the situation above?
A cross-functional team is a group of people with different functional specialisms working together, collaboratively to deliver something. In Scrum, for example, the concept translates into a Scrum team being composed of “all competencies needed to accomplish the work without depending on others not part of the team” (the Scrum Guide). This means a team might be comprised of members from different departments across an organisation; marketing, IT, commercial, infrastructure, support etc.
What are the benefits of a truly cross-functional team?
Getting to done – Teams that are not cross-functional at all, for example a team purely made up of testers, will find it virtually impossible to get anything of any complexity ‘done’ (potentially shippable) in a sprint.
Self-organising – Due to the variety of skills in a cross-functional team they are often more likely to naturally be self-organising.
Innovative – Many cross-functional teams will also be notably innovative as their wide variety of skills and specialisms allow them to be flexible, creative and to adapt swiftly to change.
Increased flow – Not having to depend on others outside of the team minimises dependencies and maintains a flow of valuable work through the team. Removing bottlenecks such as reliance on others for sign off/deployment/testing etc. further increases the predictability of the team’s delivery.
T-Shaped Team Members
Cross-functional teams work best when team members from across the organisation not only work together but consciously cross train (perhaps through pair work) to learn some of each other’s skills/competencies. People who develop skills outside of their chosen or preferred skillset, have become known as “T-shaped”; the vertical part of the T represents the depth of their main, preferred skill and the horizontal part of the T represents other skills they can use in order to collaborate and get the work of the team to ‘done’. Truly cross-functional team members will do whatever is required of them to get the work done.
For example, a team including a back-end only worker, such as below, would have to include back-end tasks in every sprint in order to keep this team member productive.
Whereas a team with more T-shaped people, as below, could vary the tasks that they worked on. If there are no back-end tasks for the sprint then the person could help out, not necessarily lead on, other tasks to help the team achieve their goal.