Technical Specialists

Ever wondered if deep specialists in specific fields are most productive on teams with similarly skilled people or a wide variety? A similar question came in from a client in today:
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I will complete my Product Owner training today. The course I am taking is taught by a local consultant. Yesterday I got into a bit of a discussion with her regarding technology specialists and I have some questions/concerns that I hope you can address. While I understand that on a scrum development team, any team member should be able to complete any item in the backlog, I am struggling with the idea that with scrum we do not have specialists. Simply put, without specialists in adhesive formulation, there would be no Post-Its, without specialiset in microreplication, there would be no Diamond Grade and without specialists in coating formulation, there would be no Scotchgard. So, my question is how do we balance the need for specialists to develop and promote critical technologies and the Scrum vision that everyone is a generalist.

Perhaps the situation is not as black and white as Angela made it sound. Perhaps she was just trying to make a point. I’d like to understand from you, how this works in practice.
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Your trainer is awesome. I absolutely see where she is building toward teams with the fewest wait-states, which are caused by handoffs. Cannon, according to the academic white papers written about their process at the time, accomplished something similar with the world’s first autofocus camera that created the revenue which made Cannon the household name it is today. The academic and research papers say they absolutely had a lens specialist, and a shutter specialist, and a camera body specialist, and more. But they chose to work together on each aspect of the project instead of dividing it into phases and handoffs. In this way, the lens specialist is said to have paired on designing shutter and exposure systems and vice versa, and each expressed it deepened their mastery of their own specialty by helping develop the neighboring components and technologies. This technique is often referred to as “T” shaped people, where the tall vertical line of the “T” could represent the deep specialty and likely Ph.D., and the horizontal top of the “T” represents being proficient enough to help in at least 2 other disciplines. A team of 4-5 specialists that must hand off to each other constantly is slow and diluted, and difficult to focus on one cohesive delivery at a time which is the primary timeline advantage of Scrum. A team of 4-5 T-shaped people, made of specialists in adhesives formulation, microreplication, and coating formulation, statistically gives us twice the work in half the time, record time to market, and record business growth. And, most importantly, record new product delivery, not just new product ideas (false innovation). Warmly, Joe
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I recommend experts with scarce skills, while frequently full time members of a dedicated team as explained above, also participate or lead a Quality Circle, or more casually a Community of Practice, with the explicit goal of mentoring at least one person in every team who would benefit from the scarce skill. These groups also explore the state of the art in the domain of the expert, conduct experiments, develop new contributions to the skill area, and ensure a minimum quality and skill level in the area is available to all practitioners. Related, a team may need more direct collaboration from an expert with a scarce skill than the Quality Circle (often meeting for only 4 hours per week) can provide. In this case, the expert is loaned to the needing team and this is tracked as a sprint backlog item in both team’s backlogs. I coach these experts, when on loan to a needing team, to pair with a member of the needing team and not do the work themselves, with the primary goal of transmitting the knowledge of what “Done with Quality” means for the specific task at hand, as this is the piece of expert knowledge that is most valuable in almost all of these scenarios. This reduces the team’s interdependence over time, promotes experts in scarce skills to be mentors and evangelists while still staying relevant in their work through being part of a team, and increases the capability of the entire organization.

I hope this post might help more folks with access to experts who have earned deep domain knowledge.

-Joe Justice, President Scrum in Hardware, Scrum Inc. Founder and CEO Team WIKISPEED.

1 thought on “Technical Specialists

  1. Tanks for this point on scrum “generalist” versus “capacité of doing with mastery on one or several domains”.
    The balance was enough clear in my mind although not written down.
    The T image chaining people in one strong team will stay as the best so far for me.

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