Question on Cross-functional Teams in Scrum

By | 2011-09-19T22:05:21+00:00 September 19th, 2011|Application Lifecycle Management (ALM), Scrum|9 Comments

Bottom line question: Can a Scrum team be made up of two testers, two developers, one SQL DBA and a build engineer, each of whom ONLY do their own tasks and work as separate silos within the Team?

I’m doing some research for a newsletter article and blog post and am trying to understand cross-functional teams in Scrum.  From my prior understanding, one of the defining factors of cross-functional teams is that they are made up of “cross-functional” individuals, who can work on different types of problems.  For instance, in Scrum everyone is called a Developer if they are on the Team.  This is true whether or not they have deep skills in actual coding.  (reference: latest Scrum Guide on  The benefit being that if the testing effort is threatening the sprint, then the people with software development skills can work with the team members with stronger test skills to complete the sprint on time.  This benefit is very clear and has been noted by multiple people, such as Don Reinertsen (Principles of Product Development Flow) and many, many others.  I even seem to remember learning about that benefit from my very first Scrum Master course. 

However, it appears I’ve made an assumption that is not necessarily true of Scrum, and I can’t find good references in the canonical Scrum literature (new versions) telling me that cross-functional individuals are encouraged (demanded?) as part of Scrum.  The Scrum Guide defines a cross functional team as “Cross-functional teams have all competencies needed to accomplish the work without depending on others not part of the team.”  I can find nowhere in the guide that states that Scrum teams should be able to work in areas that are strengths of other team members.

So, the question again: Can a Scrum team be made up of two testers, two developers, one SQL DBA and a build engineer, each of whom ONLY do their own tasks and work as separate silos within the Team?

Note that I’m not asking if it’s a good idea, but whether it is OK in formal Scrum.  It has, in the past, seemed to me that it not a good idea.  However, I will argue in the upcoming newsletter article that cross-functional individuals on cross-functional teams may be hiding dysfunctions and slowing process improvement efforts.  (Based on some thoughts in  Toyota Kata, by Mike Rother.)


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  1. Martin Hinshelwood September 19, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    I think that it is OK. It would be ideal to have cross-functional indeviduals in addition to cross-functional teams, and while it is encouraged I do not believe that it is mandated.

  2. Håkan Forss September 20, 2011 at 3:40 am

    I am no
    expert on Scrum scripture but I believe that Scrum do not dictate that every
    team member has to be cross functional. If a team of two testers, two
    developers, one SQL DBA and a build engineer can keep up a continuous flow of
    features sprint after sprint then it would be ok. This is a cross functional team that can self organize.
    Is it beneficial to have
    cross functional team members? Yes, no doubt. Then you could start to eliminate
    some of the hand offs between the functional silos and lower defects and speed
    up cycle times.

    In companies using Lean, employees are often encouraged
    to become cross functional. This creates a greater flexibility in the work
    force and in the processes. A classic Lean process improvement is to move from
    functional silos with to a work cell process design with much less hand offs. In
    a work cell based design the worker follow the work between functional areas
    doing different work at the different stations and with this eliminates some of
    the hand offs.

  3. Steven Borg September 25, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    I agree. In my next post, I argued that cross functional individuals might hide problems.  However, there are substantial benefits to having people with broad skills.  Don Reinertsen, in his book The Principles of Product Development Flow, calls this have T shaped skills — deep experience in one area, plus shallow experience across the board — and discusses in detail how they are very important in minimizing problematic queues and speeding cycle time.

  4. Brian Mueller December 1, 2011 at 7:16 am

    It used to be that Scrum did not specify that each individual had to be cross functional, only that the team had to be cross functional.  (See Agile Project Management with Scrum by Ken Schwaber where it describes this and the need to be flexible in implementation).  Contrast this with what I call the “new and unimproved scrum” of today – and it not only recommends, but FORCES individual cross functionality.  Um, how many studies, real world proofs and failed projects to we need before we admit – developers are CRUMMY testers, even when we test other developers code?  Developers don’t want to test, they are not trained to test, they are not going to test well, ever, period, stop talking about it, stop forcing it.  This latest update that basically says “everyone on the team is a developer, no exceptions” almost derailed a 6 months process to convince management to start moving towards scrum.  In setting up our team we wanted to make it cross functional and fix problems.  We had assigned some of the QA department to the team as well as some tech writers so our documentation and help could be up to date too.  How do you have tech writers be cross functional, these are english majors for goodness sake, not developers!  It will work, Ken and Jeff need to backtrack back to the roots of cross-functional teams and hop off the utopian high horse they are on with this cross functional individual nonsense, before they destroy what they have worked so hard to create. (or someone else comes along and invents Scrum 2.0 and kicks them out of the circle of trust).

  5. Martin Hinshelwood December 1, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    Where do you see that Scrum required cross functional individuals? Scrum only recommends that you have cross functional teams.


    It seams to me that you must have run into a member of the Scrum-quisition that is pushing things on to your team that are NOT mandated or even mentioned as part of Scrum! I have never heard either Ken nor Jeff talk about cross functional individuals.

  6. Anonymous January 28, 2012 at 12:01 am

    Hi! Great article! I’ve been searching high and low to find an answer to this. I’m relatively new to Scrum, been in a team for onl the last six months now.

    When I was preparing to join the team I read in a couple of different places that Team Members need to be cross-functional and multi-disciplinary as this allws any Team Member to pick up any Story… and Stories are supposed to be a slice through the system right? (I’m in web development)

    Now, the topic has been raised about whether it is “Agile” to “make” team members become cross-disciplinary and get them to learn and master those areas of development that they may not have been so proficient in. In Web, this means backend becoming design/frontend enlightened and vice versa.

    I have been reading and searching about whether becoming cross-functional is truly advisable an your article is exactly what I’m wondering.

    I’ve read the comments and it seems that being cross-functional is not in fact a strict requirement. The “requirement” or optimal blend for a team points at all disciplines being represented in the team but not within every individual team member.

    So, my question (sorry for the long preamble) is, if a Story is a slice through the system and team members are NOT cross-functional, how is that Story developed from start to finish? Do Team Members hand-off the Story once they’ve completed the tasks that they are best suited to handle???

    I’d appreciate any input you might have about this! Thanks :o)

  7. Martin Hinshelwood January 28, 2012 at 8:41 am

    Have a look at the ideas of #swarming to complete a Story in agile. Although teams tens to start handing off stories the goal is to end up with everyone that is need to get the story done just getting together and getting it done.

    What is Swarming?:
    Swarming in Kanban:

  8. Anonymous January 28, 2012 at 9:24 am

    Thank you for your input! It explains much!

  9. Martin Hinshelwood June 18, 2014 at 2:59 am

    Olivia, the first thing to note is that Scrum is not an anachronism and thus does not warrant all capital letters. Indeed it comes from the “New New Product Development Game” Harvard review and the name refers to the Scrum in the game of Rugby. I would recommend that you read the and better acquaint yourself with the framework and get a better idea of what the core rolls are and what they are in fact accountable for.

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