How Diversity and Cross-Functional teams Outperform every Time.
Road to Professional Agile Leadership
Marty de Jonge
In the early 1990s, William Muir, an evolutionary biologist at Purdue University, studied chickens. He was interested in productivity. A topic that is still (maybe more than it should be) an important metric in lots of organisations. When talking about chickens, it’s easy to measure. All you have to do is to 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. He first composed one large group of chickens and left them alone for three generations. Then he made a second group of the chickens that were individually selected based on their egg productivity. The so-called super chickens. He put these together and from each generation, he selected only the most productive chickens to breed with.
After three generations, what did he discover?
In the first group of diverse chickens, all was fine. They were fat with healthy feathers and their joined egg production had increased substantially since the start.
In the second group, however, all but three of them were dead. These three super-super chickens indeed produced the most eggs individually but picked the rest to death. The chickens that were the most productive had achieved that success only by suppressing the productivity of the rest.
The organisational pecking model:
Over the last decades this seemed to be a solid strategy to maximise your chances to become successful: Go to the right school, join 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. That way our organisation’s leaders were chosen 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 when 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. They researched the impact of (the lack) of diversity and measured IQ between teams that played the online battle multiplayer game “ League of Legends”
The outcome confirmed their hypotheses based on previous research. The groups performing best were not the groups with the one or two people with the most impressive IQ. Nor are the groups with the highest total IQ either.
The most successful teams had three characteristics in common, listed out below:
- First, there was a high degree of social sensitivity towards each other. This was measured with a test in which you read emotions from the eyes. This is generally regarded as a test for empathy, and the groups with high scores on empathy performed better.
- Second, the successful groups gave each other about the same amount of time, so that no one voice dominated, but there also were no hitchhikers.
- Third, there were more women in the successful groups.
(The author guessed this was because women usually score higher in the empathy test so that the empathy quotient counts double. Or maybe it was because they offered a more diverse perspective. However, the real reason I don’t know.
The essential difference to be successfully turned out to be the social connection with each other.
The power- and importance of social cohesion are also implicitly recognised by the authors of the Scrum Guide in their description of the Scrum Team. In the latest version of the guide (2020), this has been further emphasised by indicating that within the (multifunctional) team everyone has their own role, but that there should be no “pecking order”.
Within a Scrum Team, there are no sub-teams or hierarchies. It is a cohesive unit of professionals focused on one objective at a time, the Product Goal. — The Scrum Guide 2020
Scrum Teams are cross-functional, meaning the members have all the skills necessary to create value each Sprint. They are also self-managing, meaning they internally decide who does what, when, and how.. — The Scrum Guide 2020
Social cohesion and organising FIKA’s.
Multidisciplinary 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 to actively 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 these kinds of activities and approaches, you work on something we call “ Social Capital”.
It’s about the mortar, not the bricks.
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.
Successful use of Scrum depends on people becoming more proficient in living five values: Commitment, Focus, Openness, Respect, and Courage — The Scrum Guide 2020
Because of this openness, there can be constructive 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.
Good ideas 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.
Don’t create a team of winners, create a winning team!
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. The people 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.
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.