Tips for effective Cross-Training Agile software and operations teams

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Cross-training can be defined as the practice of training people across multiple products or technologies, skills, or processes. As managers, cross-training members of our team provide greater flexibility, scalability, and other benefits.

In a highly specialized team, the absence or withdrawal of any member can create a bottleneck. Also, changing needs and demands for different types of work done by the team can produce over or under capacity ​​—impacting the overall productivity and responsiveness of the team. However, in a team where each person is trained in several types of work, team member absences and demand fluctuations can be handled smoothly. Having a well-cross-trained team that handles both product development and operations will help to streamline activities and provide optimum utilization of team resources, illustrated with the following example:

Consider a small team of three engineers that handles three products and provides both product development and business operations support. Each team member specializes in a single product. The specialists can work on their products comprehensively and quickly. 

If new products are continuously added to the mix, specialists will also need to be constantly added, and there will be limited opportunities for scale (as well as low flexibility). Alternatively, if team members are trained on some or all products, adding products without necessarily increasing the team size becomes possible.

As cross-training allows team members to learn new skills, do different types of work, and gain a better understanding of larger processes and goals, it also significantly helps to increase motivation and engagement on the team. 

How to effectively cross train

Effective cross-training requires managers to do the following:

  • Consider the team’s overall processes and goals and where cross-training is required.
  • Map the current skills of the team and create training plans for team members (see Figures 1 and 2 below).
  • Use pair programming.
  • Create process playbooks/Confluence pages to allow efficient cross-training and ramp-up for new types of work. Ensure playbooks are thoroughly reviewed and kept up to date.
  • Incorporate cross-training into the overall development plan for each team member.
  • Define the training duration and schedule.
  • Set up a cross-training target. Set expectations, give clear instructions, and provide time for people to cross-train.
  • Monitor progress and continuously improve processes and bottlenecks. 
  • Test and measure training results and track progress.

Skill Matrix

Focus Area / Product Team Member 1 Team Member 2 Team Member 3
Configuration Management
Jira Expert Intermediate Beginner
Confluence Expert Beginner Expert
Salesforce Intermediate Expert Intermediate
Product Components
Core Engine Expert Beginner Expert
Registration Module Expert Expert Expert
AWS Services Expert Expert Beginner
Sign Up Services Intermediate Expert Expert
Server Management
Windows Expert Intermediate Expert
Linux Beginner Intermediate Intermediate
Automation
Java Expert Beginner Beginner
.Net Beginner Beginner Beginner
Soft Skills
Communication Beginner Beginner Expert
Teamwork & Collaboration Intermediate Expert Expert
Time Management Intermediate Intermediate Intermediate
Expert 7 5 7
Intermediate 4 4 3
Beginner 3 5 4
Total Score 14 14 14
Expert 50% 35.71% 50%
Intermediate 28.57% 28.57% 21.43%
Beginner 21.43% 35.71% 28.57%

Skill level is defined as:

  • Beginner: A team member who can perform standard tasks with guidance and assistance. Cannot tackle any difficult task.
  • Intermediate: A team member who can perform all basic tasks and solve some complex issues with guidance and assistance. 
  • Advanced: An expert who can handle any task without supervision.

This sheet will provide high visibility on the areas each team member needs to focus their cross-training on. 

For the purposes of collecting data:

  • Depending on the type of team, either send this sheet to each of your team members and ask them to complete it by choosing the level they feel they are at for each skill, or use the data based on each team member’s performance and update the matrix for each team member yourself.
  • Identify any required skills that cannot be acquired in the current team, potentially highlighting that we may need to hire more appropriate resources.

Discuss the results with each team member individually and use that information in creating the training plan. Make sure to explain what each level means for each skill to ensure a standardized approach.

For the purposes of planning cross-training:

  • Discuss with the expert in each knowledge area to identify the time and effort needed to cross-train a beginner and an intermediate-level team member. Based on that, build a training plan.

List of Training Components

Skill/Knowledge Area Time-to-train in Hours Currently Trained Team Members Averages of Trained Team Members per Product
Salesforce 20 1 33
Stripe 30 1 33
AWS Lambda 40 1 33
Sign Up Server 15 1 67

The sheet above identifies the required number of hours for each training area and the current status.

Training Planner

The sheet above provides a weekly training plan for each team member.

Ensure you also capture the necessary resources required for facilitating training, such as tools, licenses, dedicated time from intermediates and experts, etc. A well-planned and executed cross-training exercise will have two key results for the team:

  • Skills levels will be more equalized within the team.
  • The overall team productivity and responsiveness will increase.

Ensure complete buy-in from all the team members in training and address any concerns/reservations as quickly as possible. Now let’s look at a practical cross-training example.

A 5-team member BR team needs to support ten different products. Each team member is fully trained on two unique products. In the next month, this team needs to support three more products. The team manager decides to cross-train all 5 team members because:

  • Having specialized team members will impact the delivery of business value if any team is unavailable or leaves the company.
  • There is a need to boost the team's scalability since a headcount increase is not possible due to budget constraints.

The manager updates the Skills Matrix for each team and creates a cross-training plan which ensures that by the end of the current quarter, each team member will be trained on three unique products. The expectations for training are clearly listed objectively with target dates. Training results are analyzed weekly, and corrective actions are taken.

Therefore, an effective manager will ensure positive buy-in from all team members participating in cross-training and should work proactively to address any concerns as quickly as possible. Promoting and instilling a culture of long-term team success over short-term individual success is also crucial.

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