Whether your company is adopting agile delivery approaches or not, there are a number of benefits to encouraging your team members to become generalizing specialists. These include:
- Improved understanding and closer collaboration between roles which historically would have operated within siloes. Gaining first-hand experience with someone else’s job is a great way to increase empathy and break down barriers.
- Increased capacity for specific skills and improved resilience to unexpected resource shortfalls. While you might not get the same level of productivity or quality from project “pinch hitters”, it’s still a better outcome than being unable to progress if a key team member is suddenly unavailable.
- More enriching work experiences for your team members. It’s nice to work on tasks which you are very comfortable performing but most professionals enjoy the occasional opportunity to step out of their comfort zones to try something new.
But transforming a team of individual specialists isn’t easy and resistance could come from any of the following directions:
- The team members themselves might have fear of the unknown, ego issues or disdain for tasks which are not within their normal job description. They may also be concerned that performing such activities won’t be recognized by their managers or won’t help them further their careers within their area of specialization.
- Given the likelihood that demands on their teams exceed available capacity, functional managers may not want their staff to work on different tasks and would rather assign their team members to multiple concurrent projects where they would remain focused on their core activities.
- While Human Resources are likely to encourage versatility and flexibility in staff development, performance management systems and job families are usually geared towards specialization and HR may be unwilling to evolve them to support the development of generalizing specialists.
- If some of your team members are part of a union, there might be explicit constraints within labor contracts preventing them from performing other tasks or preventing others from performing their tasks.
- Finally, you might be reluctant to have your team members take on work outside of their areas of speciality. Concerns about the quality issues or increased conflict within the team might cause you to unconsciously discourage cross-pollination.
One method of overcoming some of these challenges is to meet with team members and their functional managers as early as possible to ask whether they have any issues with occasionally performing alternate activities if it benefits the team. Leading by example is another way to do this. While your primary focus is managing the project, it can be extremely rewarding to roll up your sleeves on an exception basis if it helps the team and you are comfortable doing so. You might consider leveraging gamification techniques by setting up a simple recognition program whereby team members earn badges for performing different activities.
Patrick Lencioni wrote in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, “Remember teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.” Encouraging the development of T-skills within your team is a great way to build trust.