Today’s teams need Roles, not Functions


Agile, DevOps, Scrum, Lean… All of those high-performance IT delivery models require cross-functional teams. A fundamental problem with traditional siloed departments or a multi-disciplinary team are the many handovers that are needed to align work between the people involved. Problems often arise because there is too little communication and collaboration. When cross-functional teams are arranged properly this will be solved.

But how do you properly set up a cross-functional team? One of the key things is to change the mindset of the team members from thinking about functions towards working based on roles.

(This is the thirteenth blog in the series “How to train cross-functional teams”, for links to previous blogs please go to the end of this blog)

The traditional way of organizing work: Functions

In traditional organizations people have a function and, in a V-model approach every function has a very clear stage where activities are done. With a function come specific responsibilities. And a person with a specific function only performs tasks that are within the responsibilities of that function. In some traditional organizations they group people in multi-disciplinary teams, but this still means a team where every team member has a specific function and stays on their own “island”.

A core problem of having a defined and distinct function is that people tend to focus on “what am I NOT responsible for”. They only take responsibility for their own tasks, the rest is not their problem.

The change cross-functional teams bring

To solve problems in communication and collaboration, todays high-performance IT delivery is organized in cross-functional teams. A main characteristic of such team is that all team members together take responsibility for completing all tasks necessary to deliver business value.

The shift for individual people in a cross-functional team is that they think “how can we fix this together”. And the key quality of people to really work together is to regularly switch roles and pick up a wider variety of tasks than they would in a traditional organization. The team members take responsibility for the entire team delivery, instead of just focusing on tasks which in their mind lie within their own “function”.

The value of working based on roles

When we talk about a role, we mean that a person can adopt this role in the team whenever this is necessary. So, a person can have multiple roles sequentially or even in parallel. In a cross-functional team every team member is allowed to pick up any task. Of course, a team member should realize first whether they are capable of doing that task. Some tasks they can do individually, other tasks they can do in pairs (that’s why the term “teamwork” was invented!).

Together the team members must have all knowledge and skills to perform all tasks of the team. And a team should take care that for all necessary knowledge and skills there are at least two people competent enough, so that if one person is not available the team can still continue to complete their tasks.

And keep in mind: not all specialized skills necessarily need to be available in the team, a team can work together with specialists from support teams for such specialized tasks.

The key skill is Curiosity

It is an illusion to think that people exist that can do any possible task in a high-performance cross-functional team. But for a team to work effectively and efficiently, it is key that every member of the team is interested in any task. By showing interest team members can help their fellow team members, just by asking questions they may already help solving problems.

And by being curious in what other team members do, they learn new knowledge and skills and thus become even more valuable as a member of their cross-functional team.

People that don’t limit themselves to a function but are open to adopt multiple roles are the key to a successful IT delivery team that truly works in a cross-functional way.

What, in your opinion, is the main benefit of applying roles instead of functions?
Please, let us know in the comments below!

This blog has been co-authored by Eva Holmquist, Senior Test Specialist at Sogeti in Sweden.

(For other blogs in the series “How to train cross-functional teams”, use this link:

Rik Marselis


Rik Marselis is principal quality consultant at Sogeti in the Netherlands. He has assisted many organizations in improving their IT-processes, in establishing their quality & testing approach, setting up their quality & test organization, and he acted as quality coach, qa-consultant, test manager and quality supervisor. Rik uses his more than 40 years of experience in systems development and quality and testing to bring fit for purpose solutions to our clients. He focuses at three major tasks: * Consultancy on Quality engineering & Testing in the broadest sense (quality & test policy, project startup, process improvement, coaching, second-opinions, etc…) * Develop and give training courses for both novice and experienced testers (Rik is an accredited trainer for TMAP, TPI and ISTQB certification training courses) * Research and development of the quality engineering & testing profession. Rik has contributed to over 20 books on quality and testing, of which 5 as an main author and 5 as project leader. His most recent book in the TMAP body of knowledge is “Quality for DevOps teams”. Rik is a much-appreciated keynote-speaker and workshop-host at conferences (he has presented at conferences in over 15 countries).

More on Rik Marselis.

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