How Diversity and Cross-Functional teams Outperform every Time.

Don't create a team of winners, create a winning team!


Marty de Jonge

3 years ago | 5 min read

My road to Professional Agile Leadership

In the early 1990’s, William Muir, an evolutionary biologist at Purdue University, studied chickens. He was interested in productivity. A topic that is still (or even more than it should be)an important metric in a lot of organisations. When talking about chickens, it’s easy to measure. All you have to do is count the eggs.

William wanted to know how to make his chickens more productive, so he came up with his famous experiment.

Chickens live in groups, so he first chose an average group of chickens and left them alone for three generations. But then he made a second group of the chickens that were individually the most productive, the so-called super chickens.

He put them together and from each generation and selected only the most productive chickens to breed with.
After three generations, what did he discover?

In the first group of divers chickens, all was fine. They were fat with healthy feathers and their joined egg production had increased enormously.

In the second group, however, all but three of them were dead. These three super-super chickens picked the rest to death. The chickens that were individually the most productive had achieved that success only by suppressing the productivity of the rest.

The organisational pecking model:

The last decades this seemed to be a solid strategy to maximise your chances to become successful: Go to the right school, get into the right sports clubs, have the right connections, get the right job, and you’re on your way to the top.

You meet like-minded people who achieved their success in a similar way. Nice and cosy, like super chickens together. This way our organisation’s leaders were determined by the pecking order model.

We thought that success was achieved by choosing the superstars and giving them all the resources and power. The result often turned out to be the same as in William Muir’s experiment: aggression, dysfunction and waste.

If the most productive can only be successful if they suppress the productivity of the rest, then we need to look for a better way to work and a richer way to live.

Another experiment was run by MIT to research the impact of (the lack) of diversity and measured IQ between teams that played the online battle multiplayer game “ League of Legends

The outcomes confirmed their hypotheses based on previous research. The groups that performed best were not the groups with one or two people with the most impressive IQ. They weren’t the groups with the highest total IQ either.

The really successful teams had three characteristics listed out below,

  • First, there was a high degree of social sensitivity towards each other. This is measured with a test in which you read emotions from eyes. This is generally regarded as a test for empathy, and the groups with high scores performed better.
  • Secondly, the successful groups gave each other about the same amount of time, so that no one voice dominated, but there were also no hitchhikers.
  • Thirdly, there were more women in the successful groups.

(Whether this was because women usually score higher in the empathy test so that the empathy quotient counts double, or it was because they offered a more diverse perspective, is unknown.)

The essential difference to be successfully turned out to be the social connection with each other.

The essence of Scrum is a small team of people. The individual team is highly flexible and adaptive. These strengths continue operating in single, several, many, and networks of teams that develop, release, operate and sustain the work and work products of thousands of people.

They collaborate and interoperate through sophisticated development architectures and target release environments. The Scrum Guide 2017
…Scrum Teams are self-organizing and cross-functional. — The Scrum Guide 2017
Cross-functional teams have all competencies needed to accomplish the work without depending on others not part of the team. — The Scrum Guide 2017

Social cohesion and organising FIKA’s.

Multidisclipinair teams show better social cohesion. When there is social cohesion in a team, people are willing to help each other out. Helpfulness may sound weak, but it’s crucial for successful teams, and it systematically outperforms individual intelligence.

Helpfulness means you don’t need to know everything. You only have to work with people who are good at getting and giving help.

Social cohesion does not emerge suddenly out of the blue sky. You have to work on this and as an organisation give time for this to evolve. You might even have actively to organise this to get it going and get people to spend time at the coffee machine and talk to each other.

The Swedes even have a special term for this. They call it a FIKA, which is more than just a coffee break. It is ‘joining forces’. Not with just your direct colleagues, but with everybody in the organisation, cross-department, cross hierarchical levels.

Especially when people are doing groundbreaking work that really matters — people need social support, and they need to know who to ask for help. Ideas don’t come from companies; they only come from people.

And what motivates people are the bonds, loyalty, and trust they develop among themselves. With this kind of activities and approaches, you work on something we call “ Social Capital”

It’s about the mortar, not just the bricks.

Social Capital

Social capital is the interdependence that builds trust. The term comes from sociologists who studied communities that proved particularly resilient in times of stress. Social capital gives companies momentum and social capital makes companies robust.

What does this mean in practical terms? It means that time is everything because social capital generates interest with time. Teams that work together for longer get better and better because it takes time to develop the trust you need for true openness.

When the values of commitment, courage, focus, openness and respect are embodied and lived by the Scrum Team, the Scrum pillars of transparency, inspection, and adaptation come to life and build trust for everyone. — Scrum Values — 2017

Because of this openness, there can be a lot of conflicts because openness is only practised to its full potential when there are a safe environment and trust. (Lencioni) And so, good ideas turn into great ideas because no idea comes fully formed into the world.

They start a bit like a child is born, a bit messy and confused, but full of possibilities. And only through generous contributions, trust and challenge can they develop to their full potential. And that’s what promotes social capital.


Now rivalry must be replaced by social capital. For decades we have been trying to motivate people with money, even though an enormous amount of research has shown that money damages social cohesion. Now we have to let people motivate each other.

For years we have thought that leaders are heroic (super chicken) soloists who were solely responsible for solving complex problems. Now we need to redefine leadership as an activity that creates conditions in which we can do our bravest thinking together.

We have to acknowledge that we don’t need super chickens anymore, we now need everyone, because only when we accept that everyone is valuable will we release the energy and the imagination and the impulse we need for an immeasurably good result as a team.


Created by

Marty de Jonge

As an agnostic change agent, I am constantly amazed at what happens in organizations and learn every day. Enthusiastic writer and always open for discussion.







Related Articles