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How do you make sure you’re rewarding, instead of punishing, your utility players for their versatility?

Managing variability is a key agile practice and it’s one where many teams stumble.  Some feel the pain in “story sizing” or “estimation”; teams doing timeboxed iterations may encounter it when they scramble to finish what they committed or struggle to interpret and apply their velocity metrics.

There’s also variability in work types and roles, whether that’s the balance of code vs. test or specific coding skillsets like data vs. business logic vs. UI.  I blogged about it a while back as How Flexible Should an Agile Team Be?  A preferred way of managing variability while still allowing the specialization and deep expertise teams need is to cultivate T-shaped skillsets: deep in a few areas, with meaningful breadth across a range of others.

This carries the implication that the T-shaped individuals on your cross-functional teams will cooperate, flex, and share workloads.  That’s the point.  That’s what you have them for.

It also implies that at least some of the time, your T-shaped individuals will be working in their areas of breadth rather than depth—what Myers-Briggs would call out-of-preference.

That’s where a lot of teams hit a wall.  It turns out, just because someone on your team can do something in their breadth areas doesn’t mean they want to.  Doesn’t mean they love it.  I think we need to handle this situation carefully.  T-shaped individuals can be quite valuable and we don’t want to burn them out or alienate them.

In talking through this challenge with my current customer, I came up with two things that any T-shaped individual needs to know when you’re asking them to work on something that isn’t their depth:

First, they need to know and believe that you don’t expect them to work in their out-of-preference zone forever, or even very often.  They need to see a light at the end of the tunnel.  If breadth work takes over the stuff they actually love doing, you’ll lose them, which sucks for everyone.  If you find it necessary to drag them out-of-preference too much of the time, your team has a resource problem which you should solve with HR.

Second, they need you to fully understand, appreciate, and accommodate the fact that they’ll be slower and less effective in their out-of-preference areas than an expert in those areas would be.  If you have perfectionists, this’ll drive them crazy: they’ll hate delivering less than the theoretical best, and they’ll need reassurance that their effort is not wasted.

What do you think?  Have I missed something that you look for from your management team?

Update 4th April: Thanks, commenters!  Y’all’ve got me thinking about another principle.  I assert that it is never possible for the team or management to dictate someone’s depth skills.  They have to love a thing in order to get to be any good at it.  And can the team define someone’s breadth skills for them?  They can try, but they probably shouldn’t.

When we talk about how valuable T-shaped individuals are, we mean people who have natural strengths and interests and are flexible in how they help out the team at any given time… not minions who get assigned crap work because “somebody’s got to do it”.  (If you’re a sincere T-shaped individual who’s getting all the crap work, you’re insanely undervaluing yourself.  Go update your résumé.)  On the flip side, if your team members refuse to do out-of-preference work, maybe they’re not T-shaped at all; maybe they’re one-trick ponies…

Originally published at by ALM Consultant Cheryl Hammond.

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