Are your teams made up of T-shaped or I-shaped people? If that question causes you to cock an eyebrow, let’s ask it another way: If one person calls in sick tomorrow, does their job still get done, or does the office collapse into a state of violent anarchy? (Note: Other options may lie somewhere in the middle…)
“Hey guys, are we thinking this through?”
A T-Shaped person is an individual who has deep knowledge of a specialized skill set in addition to a range of acquired tangential, related skills. They are also known as generalizing-specialists or “Renaissance” workers. In comparison with the “T” shaped individual, “I” shaped individuals focus mainly on their own specialized skill-sets, often view the workplace as a competitive environment, and tend to work within disciplinary silos. When a team is comprised of highly specialized I-shaped people, there is little room for any kind of structural change. For example, what would happen if Baracus suddenly quit the A-Team? Who else could pull off that look? Face? Murdock?
Benefits of Teams of T-Shaped People
A team of T-shaped people (aka. cross-functional team) complements one another with both their specialized knowledge and overlapping skills to form a high performing unit.
Cross-functional teams experience less internal bottlenecks and contention for one person’s time.
T-shaped people can view situations from different perspectives, bringing not only their specialized knowledge to the table, but wide-ranging experience in other areas as well.
T-shaped people help fill skills gaps and take on new skill sets quickly. This then leads to higher overall team productivity and greater flexibility.
Such teams are not limited by a single point of failure (SPOF). Should Steve leave the team, Amy has sufficient knowledge to keep the project going.
Building Cross-functional Teams
Step 1: Understand
Start by mapping all of the disciplines or functional areas necessary for your team to complete projects as columns on a graph. Then, work with each team member to assess their capabilities or expertise from one through ten in rows going vertically. Be sure to understand ahead of time what it means to be a 1 or a 10 in each area to avoid arbitrarily assigning numbers. Once complete, you will have a big picture view of your team’s capabilities as a whole.
Originally posted on Scrumtalks
Step 2: Plan
At this point, you can begin discussing strategies to help fill in the empty spaces. Be sure to create a clear process for closing skill gaps, enlisting the help of designated “experts” in specific fields to design collaboration procedures. When done in a positive manner, from a position of support (not judgment or blame), this can drive some great discussion and re-energize employees. With a solid plan, time, and consistent effort, teams will eventually grow into cross-functional units.
“I love it when a plan comes together…”
“Ugh, God George, we know.”
Step 3: Implement
With the skill gaps identified, and strategies in place to fill those gaps, it is now time to work with management, team leads, and your experts to execute.
Provide ongoing training for all employees on topics relevant to your business’ core functions, to standardize the horizontal portion of the “T”. As skilled as Dwight might be in competitive helicopter aerobatics, unless your organization plans on expanding into the airshow market, it doesn’t make sense to invest time into turning the rest of the team into amateur stunt pilots. It does however, make sense to have Dwight pair with other team members on Ruby so that the next time he ends up in the hospital due to a helicopter-related accident, his co-workers are able to carry on his portion of the project without him.
Rest in Peace, Dwight
Make sure you have a solid workflow in place. Increasing employees’ skill levels won’t do much to boost performance if there are inherent problems in the processes they use to work together. Creating a value stream and identifying areas of consistent churn to streamline will help mitigate frustration and can even help uncover additional skill gaps that need closing.
Set clear expectations. This may seem obvious, but simply saying to your teams “improve yourselves!” will not yield positive results. You’ll have to clearly define what success looks like on an individual level, a team level, department level, etc.
Work with employees on an ongoing basis to understand their core competencies, evolving skill sets, and emerging interests. Things change. Staying informed means you can adapt the strategy as needed.
Create focused learning activities around bottlenecks.
Build cross-team communities of practice around technical specialties, domain knowledge areas, or any other areas of interest.
Work with team leaders to establish an environment that encourages continual learning activities such as pairing, job shadowing, lunch-n-learns, book clubs, and open discussions. Empower employees to be honest with their T-skills and discover solutions for the areas in which they are not experts. Build continual improvement into the culture by encouraging collaboration and support from all levels. The goal is to make employees feel comfortable asking for help and running experiments so that they can grow their expertise.
Finally, help create consistent boundaries for workloads and job functions. Being a T-shaped employee does not mean become a master in everything and employees with broad skills should not be driving initiatives outside of their core function, especially when there is an expert on the team. Just because accounting expert, Dirk, cross-trained Lawrence on processing payroll, does not make Lawrence the new accountant.
Deal with it, Lawrence.
By following the above guidelines you can optimize your teams, leveraging their strengths and building their individual skill portfolios in the process. However, just because you may have have all capabilities necessary to do the work, it does not necessarily mean you have a high-performing team. To achieve high-performance, teams will need to have the right communication and collaboration processes in place. This area is often the most challenging for teams, but it is critical for sustainable success. Want to know if your teams are maximizing their performance potential? Take our 1-Minute Agility Self Assessment to find out!