Teams are more effective when they learn how to effectively combine their skills to complete a shared task. This is the essence of cross-functionality.
Cross-functional teams are defined as consisting of members with different functional backgrounds (Keller, 2001). The presence of different skills in teams creates opportunities for organizational ambidexterity. However, this is only the case when teams learn how to effectively combine their skills to complete shared tasks. Otherwise, a high degree of skill specialization in teams only results in a division of work and fracturing of collaboration. Cross-functionality in teams has been linked to shorter development time (Eisenhardt & Tabrizi, 1995) and increased quality and improved performance (Keller, 2001). For Scrum teams specifically, Moe et. al. (2010) and Verwijs & Russo (2022) found that team effectiveness is inhibited when teams lack such cross-functionality.
It is important to emphasize that cross-functionality does not mean that every member has the skills to perform any kind of task. This is highly unlikely and unfeasible for complex work, where the required skills take years to train and develop. The essence of cross-functionality lies in the ability of teams to leverage diverse skillsets of team members to complete shared tasks.
So what are strategies to start improving?
👉 First, cross-functionality can be encouraged in teams by building a shared understanding of who has which skills in a team and at what level. A “skill matrix” is useful in this regard, especially for new teams.
👉 Second, members learn more quickly how to combine their skills when they actually work together on tasks. This explains why practices like “pair programming” are so beneficial to teams. It also explains why so many Agile methodologies emphasize the use of shared goals to encourage collaboration over the division of work. Teams where members only work on those tasks that fit exactly within their specialization will never become truly cross-functional.
👉 Third, teams can greatly expand their cross-functionality by training together. We’ve found that hackathons are particularly useful here. Instead of working on day-to-day work, teams instead pick a relevant challenge and try to complete it by working together.
👉 Fourth, many organizations still organize work along skill specializations because they feel it is more efficient. For example, all testers go together in teams, as do the designers, the marketers, and the developers. Work is then passed from team to team toward completion. However, such practices are markedly inefficient in complex environments where work is unpredictable and difficult. If you find that work is still primarily organized along skill specializations, your first priority would be to start to loosen this.
Actions to start small and simple are:
1️⃣ During the (Sprint) Retrospective, identify 1 scarcely available skill that at least 3 team members will improve in the next Sprint.
2️⃣ Organize a workshop in the next Sprint, in which a team member who is skilled at a particular task demonstrates how they perform it and help others do it as well.
3️⃣ For the next Sprint, agree to limit your work-in-progress to no more than a third of the number of members in your team and work together on those items as creatively as possible.
What is your experience with improving cross-functionality❓ What recommendations do you have to help a team start improving❓ Cross-functionality is one of the 20+ factors we measure to determine Agile & Scrum team effectiveness. Based on the results, teams receive evidence-based feedback on how to start improving.
Why don’t you give the Agile/Scrum Team Survey a try? We offer a free version focused on individual teams and a paid version that shows aggregated results of multiple teams.