Using Team Consultants to Optimize Your Organization

Posted in Agile, Scrum, Leadership, and Management - 0

Data tells us that the best team sizes are between five and nine people, all of whom are fully dedicated to a project for the duration of the project, and who work together in a cross-functional way to deliver working software at the end of every sprint. What many companies find, however, is that there aren’t enough good people to go around. Creating one or two teams? Sure. Creating a whole company of fully cross-functional, dedicated teams? Much more difficult.

Some people have great skills but don’t necessarily make good team members. Others are in such high demand that it’s hard to hold them on one team for the length of the project. In light of these realities, how can you structure a team that is dedicated to the project, contains all the skills you need to get the job done, and provides opportunities for personal growth?

I’ve had success with a concept I call team consultants.

What Is a Team Consultant?

A team consultant is someone in your organization who is available for some amount of work and directly fills a skill gap between the team and the project. Rather than being dedicated to one Scrum team, team consultants choose to offer up their services as internal “guns for hire,” providing specific expertise as needed. As such, team consultants often work for multiple teams and are typically very specialized. That doesn’t mean the team consultants hoard their knowledge, though. As part of a learning organization, team consultants help others by teaching, giving advice, coaching—whatever the team needs during a sprint. And the team consultants grow, too, learning how to work as part of a cross-functional team and how to share their expertise with others.

The project will need a core team of well-rounded individuals who can do the bulk of the work on the project. That team of four-to-six people will be dedicated full-time to the project. Collectively, they are responsible for delivery of the work. They are a cross-functional team who work on only one project, eliminating context switching and multitasking.

Together they will meet to determine what strengths and skills they collectively bring to the project. They will then talk about what competencies that they project requires but which they might be lacking.

Core Member or Team Consultant?

So how do you decide whether someone should be a core team member or a team consultant? The person in the best position to determine this is the person doing the work. Communicate the differences in the two roles, perhaps even posting a table like the table below that lists the benefits and downsides of each role.

Team Consultants

Team consultants work on multiple projects and will need to manage their time accordingly. Team consultants often choose this role because they are passionately dedicated to their crafts. These people have been working in their subject matter for so long that they are the “go-to” people for certain types of work.

Signing up to be a team consultant, however, does not mean that someone gets to practice a craft without helping others. On the contrary, whenever possible, team consultants should work to bring up the skills of the entire organization.

The people that make up the core team, on the other hand, are skilled in multiple areas. They are not expected to be experts; in fact the team is designed to provide cross-functional balance of expertise. Like a team consultant, a core team member is responsible for his or her own time, but all this time is dedicated to one team and one project.

Ground Rules

Once you’ve built a team of core members and consultants, you need to establish guidelines to encourage teamwork. The specific guidelines vary from organization to organization but should include the following:

  • During the course of the sprint, the team and team consultants are jointly and equally responsible for delivering on their commitments.
  • Team consultants should show up on time, be part of daily meetings whenever possible, and conduct themselves as team members for the length of the sprint.
  • Team consultants are experts in one area but otherwise no different than a core team member. There is no hierarchy among core team members and consultants.
  • If anyone or anything is blocking a task, the task should be brought up at the daily standup and addressed immediately.

Remember, too, that you cannot have a core team made solely of consultants. The majority of the team should be dedicated to the project from beginning to end.

Some might look at this model and think that it circumvents Scrum’s call for dedicated, cross-functional teams. It does not. What it does do is provide teams and companies the flexibility to stay within the boundaries of Scrum by having a dedicated, cross-functional team while enabling that team to call on experts, team consultants, to help out as identified and needed by the team. It is not the job of a resource manager or an executive to randomly assign people to the team; that will not work. It is the job of the team members to determine and manage their schedules. If you start to see “teams” of consultants, ones in which there are only one or two core team members, the dedicated, cross-functional team has been lost. Remind the business of the importance of an actual core team supplemented by consultants and reboot.

Having a dedicated team with all the skills necessary to get the project completed is ideal. But most teams will, at some point in the project, find themselves wishing for a particular expertise. If you have internal people who can fill this gap on a temporary basis, bring them in to the project. If your organization does not have team consultants who can fill the gaps, you may want to bring in external consultants for limited engagements. A team consultant can sometimes score a lot of points for a project that might otherwise struggle with a skill gap.

For more information on how to use this model in detail, including setting up your organization, please read Chapter 3 in The Scrum Field Guide: Practical Advice for Your First Year