Thursday, February 2, 2012

Cross-Functionality in Scrum


Scrum recommends that a team should feature all the skills required in order to deliver the releasable product increment by the end of the Sprint. 

Why is it a good thing to have all the skills needed? It is all about dependencies. We try to design our software systems to be loosely coupled and highly cohesive. The same principles apply to team composition. We want our team to be like a special unit, self sufficient and able to deliver on the chosen assignment.
So, what would happen if one significant skill is missing from the team? The team will have a strong external dependency and will need to ask for support from external sources. This is a huge risk. Will the team get access to the person at the right time for the right duration? This creates an additional drag factor and affects the delivery date or reduces the scope of the product to be delivered.

Scrum does not require cross-functional teams, it only recommends them. In practice they have shown to be a significant boost for productivity. Especially in combination with self-organization.

Often it is misunderstood that cross-functional means that any person in the team needs to be able to do all the upcoming work. This is wrong. The unit that needs to be cross-functional is the development team. The dev team has the responsibility to self-organize in order to maximize the usage of its skills.  Hence, the team might be composed of specialists only, however the sum of the individuals needs to possess all required skills.

Nevertheless, as described above, if you only have specialists then you will have rather large teams, as for every skill you will need at least one developer. This will cause larger than needed teams and probably all other kinds of problems: part time team members based on FTE mathematics, work organized by activity not by feature, bad ‘unskilled' estimates, ...

Therefore agile teams favor generalists, developers with a rounded and versatile skill set. I like to use the term specialized generalists, strong all-rounders with one top notch special area.

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