Cross-skilling seems to be a hot topic amongst our Scrum Teams at the moment. But what does this actually mean and why should anyone want to do it?
What is cross-skilling?
Cross-skilling refers to the breadth and depth of skills that a person may have. We can consider three alternatives.
1. The Specialist has a great depth of skill within just one particular area.
2. The Jack of all Trades has a great breadth of skills, and can cover many areas, but none of them in much depth.
3. The Cross-skilled person has a specialism but is also able to cross into other areas where they have a limited level of skill but can help out. We would call this a 'T-shaped' person.
Why is 'T-shaped-ness' so good? Every team benefits from people who are experts at what they do. They are able to work quickly and effectively in their area of expertise. But what if these specialists also understand something about each other's areas of expertise? They can now collaborate more easily with each other, help out wherever they can and generally extend the reach of the team. Let's have a closer look at some of the reasons for cross-skilling.
What would drive an individual to become more 'T-shaped' and to extend their skills into other areas?
1. To fill a gap that the team doesn’t have
This makes the team more capable, by extending the skills it can cover.
2. To help out when the team need more of a skill than they currently have available
This makes the team more resilient because it can cope better with changes in workload and absences within the team.
3. To further the skills and experience of the individual
This is a bonus side-effect for the individual, in addition to the advantages for the team.
When to cross-skill?
The motivators for the individual to extend their skill set may be driven by:
- Opportunity: The project has a need, perhaps for a new skill
- Team-focus: The team has a need, perhaps for more of one skill
- Interest: The individual has a desire to learn something new
Cross-skilling should not be driven by Management but should be enabled and supported by them.
How to cross-skill?
Let's have a look at some example scenarios which should explain these ideas.
Case Study 1:
Jason is a Java developer who works on a team where test resource is stretched. He helps to write the automated tests for the project, as defined by the test specialist in the team. He’s not a test expert but he can use his Java skills to facilitate the automated testing.
Case Study 2:
Carla is a UI developer who has a desire to extend her skill-set. She’s working on a team with only one back-end developer, who is due to take extended leave later in the year. Having done some Java training at Uni, she takes a refresher course and begins to do some back-end work, under the watchful eye of the experienced Java developer in the team.
Case Study 3:
Sally is a Scrum Master working on a team that currently has no testers. She wants to help out in this area so she builds up her domain knowledge by completing the available online training and tutorials. Working alongside the team, she carries out some exploratory testing of the stories that are being developed during the sprint, raising any issues she finds with the Product Manager and Developers.
In summary, cross-skilling is a natural, organic process which occurs via an individual’s desire to expand their skills alongside their choice to support the needs of the team. Investing in a new skill may have a short-term cost but this is likely to be out-weighed by the long-term gain for the individual, for the team and for the organisation.