I’ve seen it myself in numerous projects and teams, with positive short-term and long-term effects.
Here are the top five benefits of cross-training as I see them:
- Reinforced learning: Teaching someone a new skill makes the teacher view that skill from a new perspective and think critically about how the learner should approach it, reinforcing their own previous training and providing new insights that benefit the team.
- New relationships: The collaboration enables new relationships to form that may not have otherwise. These new connections foster collaboration and inject doses of energy, creativity, and esprit de corps into the project.
- Organizational awareness: By learning each other’s roles, your team members will better understand how each part fits in the project. Rather than working in isolation, team members understand how their work affects each other. This can help identify duplicate or unnecessary work and improve productivity.
- Robustness: Cross-training makes your team more robust by allowing work to continue during absences when it would otherwise halt. Team members may have to leave temporarily or permanently for various reasons and cross-training ensures that the disruption is minimal. (In performing arts, this is the purpose of an understudy—a performer who can replace someone in a critical role during an emergency. The show must go on!) Cross-training is especially important for long projects where staff turnover can be significant.
- Capacity building: Cross-training allows you to harness internal talent on the current project and build capacity for future ones. Roles will change from project to project, so cross-training will help prepare team members for the next one.
Global design firm IDEO, famous for its seemingly bottomless innovation capacity, leverages cross-training and cross-disciplinary capabilities in its project teams. CEO Tim Brown described IDEO employees as T-shaped people. “The vertical stroke of the ‘T’ is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process. … The horizontal stroke of the ‘T’ is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines. … T-shaped people have both depth and breadth in their skills.”
Cross-training helps turn I-shaped workers—those with depth but no collaborative propensity—into T-shaped workers. They learn to listen to other points of view, build on each other’s ideas, and produce synergistic solutions rather than settling for compromises.
Consider dedicating a portion of your team’s time to cross-training. Much of it will occur naturally as team members collaborate, but you may need to structure more deliberate training on certain skills.
Great project teams continue to learn. Through cross-training, they hone skills in their individual areas of expertise and also learn basic management, communication, and interdisciplinary skills that benefit everyone.