“Scrum Teams are cross-functional, meaning the members have all the skills necessary to create value each Sprint. They are also self-managing, meaning they internally decide who does what, when, and how.” Scrum Guide 2020

The Scrum Guide states that Scrum teams are cross-functional. When I work with organizations and begin conversations about forming cross-functional teams, I almost always get push back. There is a hesitancy around designing cross functional teams and a lack of awareness of why it is so important for teams to be cross functional. Today, I want to focus on why cross functional teams are so important.

Let’s start with “What is a cross functional team?” What does that actually mean? For me, it means that the team has required skills embedded OR the desire to build required skills within the team. It is not always feasible or practical to have team members who have all of the needed skills on the same team; however, having persons dedicated to several teams is worse. It forces context switching and reduces the employee throughput. In addition, when team members are dedicated to only one team, it reinforces team accountability and collective ownership. With a dedicated team, the team members can determine what skills they are missing and start developing a plan to grow those skills.

For example, it might not be feasible to dedicate a DBA to every team. What is feasible is to build the needed DBA skill within the team. When a team forms, map out the skills they have and the skills they need. What skills are required to complete the work in the backlog? Where are the gaps?

What are some benefits of having cross-functional teams?

  1. Reduce dependencies/handoffs to other teams
  2. Bring the skills needed to complete the product goal into the teams. Each time a team has a dependency with another team, there is a delay in delivering customer value. It also increases frustration across all teams. One team’s priority may be different from another team.

  3. Grow internal team skills
  4. There is nothing better than having the skills needed to get the job done. The objective is not that every team member is a rock star in every area but that the team does have the skills needed to be self sufficient. The team then owns the deliverable and is not impacted by other teams schedules.

  5. Increase flow efficiency
  6. Each hand off decreases flow efficiency. Work sitting in an idle state waiting on the next team to pick it up decreases efficiency and increases time to market. While work may be completed by one team, business value is not accomplished until it is actually delivered to the customer.

  7. Reduced cycle time
  8. By developing skills internal to the team, delivery time could be reduced by having multiple team members who can get the work completed.

  9. Reducing silos
  10. Having a single person with the skills needed on the team to complete work creates a potentially unnecessary burden on that person. It makes it difficult for them to go on vacation, to take a day off, to call in sick. At no point should one team member have that much pressure or stress to perform.

When I coach teams, I want them to identify the millionaire factor. The millionaire factor is also referred to as the bus factor. How many team members can get hit by a bus before you can no longer complete your work? I’m going to be less morbid and call it the millionaire factor. How many team members can win the lottery and quit their job before the team can no longer complete their work. This sounds so much better. The idea is to map out the skill and the ability within the team.

Let’s consider a team of 30 people that produces bread. Bread production has three necessary steps: mixing ingredients, kneading the dough, and baking. On our team of 30, 10 people know how to mix ingredients. All 30 people know how to knead the dough; however, only 5 people know how to bake. If all 5 people who know how to bake win the lottery and quit then the team cannot produce bread. The team’s millionaire factor is 5.

This concept can be applied to any skill or function. Any team that has a millionaire factor of 1 or less for a skill needs attention. If a team has a skill with a factor of zero then the team must rely on outside assistance in order to complete the work. The team must decide what the lowest acceptable millionaire factor is for them. It could be different based on the skills identified and the team.

I was recently listening to an audio book, and the author used the phrase “Name it to Tame it”. In other words, you have to identify an issue in order to resolve an issue. It’s one thing to talk about needing to be more cross functional. It’s another to actually visualize it and create a plan. I have been using a skills matrix exercise with teams to help them identify and prioritize the skills they need to develop and increase their millionaire factor. We use it to move from the state of talking about cross functionality to the state of creating it. Name it! Make the gaps visible. Tame it! Identify ways to increase knowledge sharing and learning across the team. Once identified, there are several techniques that can be used to master needed skills. Examples include pairing, mobbing, swarming, having dedicated learning time, peer reviews. The list could go on. The point is to be intentional about creating time and urgency around growing each other as team members.

Identifying and building cross functional teams is crucial and a good first step in becoming a truly cross functional organization. The possibilities are unlimited. Determine your business outcome and form cross functional teams to achieve it.

Skills Matrix Exercise

Step 1: Identify and list the skills needed within the team

  • Have team members brainstorm different skills that they feel are required to complete the work of the team. This could be skills required currently or future skills that will be needed. Have each team member do this individually.
  • Each team member writes each skill on a separate post-it.
  • A great prep would be to have them keep track of the skills they are actively using prior to the meeting. This step is not necessary but could speed up the process.

*Note – A question that often arises is “What level of granularity do we need in the skill?” I encourage the teams to determine the level of granularity needed. Some might be high level and some might be very detailed. That is ok.

Step 2: Sort and consolidate skills as a team

  • As team members complete step 1, have them place the stickies on a wall and begin sorting and grouping for duplicates. Remove duplicates, as needed.
  • Sorting and grouping should be a team activity.

Step 3: Discuss skills and plot them on the matrix

  • Create a matrix of Difficulty vs Frequency
  • Plot each of the skills from Step 2 on the matrix. The entire team should be involved in the conversation about where each skill is placed.

Step 4: Indicate individuals’ skill proficiency on each skill

  • Create a legend by assigning each team member a color.
  • Using the colors assigned, have each team member place a dot on the skills they believe they possess.

Step 5: Evaluate opportunities and plan to develop team skills

  • Once all skills are plotted and team proficiency is indicated, note gaps.
  • Focus skills that have 0 or 1 dots or the least number of dots.
  • Start in the upper left (box 1). These would be the quickest wins for the team.
  • Discuss how to approach sharing knowledge and learning new skills.

Step 6: Update and revisit matrix periodically

  • This is to be a living document that should be revisited periodically.
  • Consider reviewing during Sprint events or during the Daily Scrum when discussing the plan for the day.
  • As new skills are needed or old skills become obsolete, update the board.
  • Encourage team members to pair or mob items to increase knowledge sharing. As the team grows more confident in their own and each other’s skills, team work will increase significantly.

Download the Project Brilliant Skills Matrix template.