Finding a Home for Specialists on Cross-Functional Agile Teams
It may seem like the best team would be composed entirely of specialists. Why wouldn’t you want all people who are experts in their areas of work?
But while specialists get certain things done quickly, they can also get in the way of an efficient workflow if the sprint backlog does not have a consistent balance of work. For example, if you have a team of two programmers and two testers, work may pile up if code needing to be tested queues behind testers who are fully engaged.
Instead, agile—and, in particular, Scrum—emphasizes the importance of cross-functional teams of people who are proficient in one concentration but also have some abilities in other areas. These multiskilled individuals enable teams to work more efficiently because they can cover and fill in for one another.
Still, the idea of having employees with only one main skill set is deeply entrenched in some organizations. You can keep specialists on your teams; you just need to structure their work. Getting the correct mix of skills on a team can be challenging, and there are multiple ways to get that mix. Author and certified Scrum trainer Ken Rubin gives four options for making good use of a specialist.
One is to give the specialists on your team only the work within their area of expertise. Offloading the work anyone else can do to the others on the team allows the specialists to focus on the work they can add the most value to. But unless the team needs a large amount of specialist work done, it may result in the specialist sometimes sitting around with nothing to do.
Another option is to move the specialist work to a component team, which does work for teams across the organization. This helps the specialist work get done more efficiently on an organizational basis, but it also can make for interteam dependencies and potential bottlenecks. If several development teams give requests to the component team at once, the dev teams will have to wait until the specialist work is done to complete their features. If you go for this option, avoid having the downstream team take on work until the specialist work is finished.
A third option is to have the specialist be part of the development team. This fits more cleanly with the Scrum model, as it involves everyone having some cross-functional skills and reduces the team’s dependency on the specialist. However, it can be difficult to cross-train, especially when it’s someone used to doing one kind of work (and doing it better than anyone else).
Instead, it may be worth considering the last option, which is treating specialists as consultants and allocating their time across a number of teams. This can lead to bottlenecks on some teams and fewer opportunities to address discovered work, but if the work is separable and well understood, this may be the most efficient option.
Whatever approach works for your team, it’s important to understand the benefits and limits of each option. Recognize the added value of specialists and discover how they can most benefit your agile development teams.