Project Management

In Praise of T-Shaped People

Esther has an M.A. in Organizational Leadership, is the author of over 100 articles, and co-author of "Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great" and "Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management". She’s a founder of the AYE Conference, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Agile Alliance.

In a previous article, I wrote about self-imposed dependencies in organizations that arrange people by component or function. This organizing principle derives from breaking down work into discrete components, and identifying the specific skills to do each type of work. It sounds efficient, but when each group has different demands and different priorities, orchestrating work across those groups can be a major challenge.

Forming cross-functional teams is one way out of this dependency trap. But if you just put a group of specialists together, have you really solved the problem? In this article, I'll explore the downside of over-specialization and write about the sort of people you need to have truly cross-functional teams.

The Price We Pay for Specialists
On the surface, specialization sounds eminently logical and efficient. Break work down into functional components, identify the specific skills needed to do the work, train people to those skills and assign work accordingly. When a person specializes, he gains fluency in the jargon of his narrow field. When there's little overlap with other specialties--or terms have different meanings in different specialties--communication suffers.

Every specialty has its own set of concerns and sees problems through that lens. Data modelers concern themselves with the structure and relationships of data within a …

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"Seriousness is the only refuge of the shallow."

- Oscar Wilde