A High-Performing Scrum Team and Diversity

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A High-Performing Scrum Team and Diversity

According to social research experiments, the diversity and groupthink have powerful effects on decision-making and may be a key to great Scrum teams.

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I was recently asked about the composition of a high-performing Scrum team. Why is it that some Scrum teams consistently deliver on their sprint commitments regardless of the difficulty of the work and seem to have no limit to their ability to increment their velocity, While other teams struggle and seem to miss more sprint commitments than they make? I must admit that in a large global organization, even among mature teams, I see widely varying degrees of success in our Scrum teams. We know that a Scrum team can face stubborn technical challenges. Given the difficult work and the self-organized nature, rich team conversations and innovative thinking is an advantage. I recently read that team diversity improves decisions. Let’s look and see if it contributes to a high performing Scrum team. But first, let’s define a healthy team.

A healthy Scrum team delivers an agreed amount of work, while enforcing a standard of care. The work is defined by the Product Owner and has value to the stakeholders. Accountability to the stakeholders is paramount but is trumped by accountability to the team collective. The team is a “small, co-located, self-organized, self-contained, value-driven, group of full-time team members who are organized around a mission. Their job is to produce high-quality results at a sustainable pace.” (Scrum Team, ScrumDictionary.com. Feb, 2018)

I have often observed that while many teams meet the above definition of a healthy team, a high-performing team has something extra. They are innovative thinkers. Teams that continually meet and exceed their sprint commitments are solving difficult problems and eliminating barriers. These teams have become proficient at collaboration and creative thinking. A 2003 Stanford Graduate School of Business psychological study of group decision making found a strong correlation between diversity and innovative problem-solving. Students were formed into teams and asked to collaborate to solve a complicated actual murder. There were two study groups. The first study group was teams of four friends. The second study group was teams of three friends and a stranger.

They were given identical known facts about the murder and the same list of suspects. The actual murderer was known only to those conducting the study. The teams that included a stranger consistently did a better job of finding the correct murderer. The surprise to the study was that the stranger not only represented a different set of values and diversity in thought, but the introduction of a possible challenge to unanimous judgment pushed the friends to revisit assumptions and retrace their thinking before making a conclusion. Also, they "paid more attention to the newcomer and to the tasks at hand and were more willing to change their views." In short, "the stranger provoked the friends to raise their game." (Tim Harford, 2016)

Another study by Solomon Asch in 1951 found that people would sometimes "suppress their own opinions to agree with a unanimous group. " The pressure of groupthink was often able to make the study participant choose what was clearly wrong. However, a single dissenting voice was enough to give the participant the freedom to think independently and choose what they knew to be correct. Teams of like-minded peers are subject to groupthink and get stuck. “Adding a new perspective or a new set of skills can unstick the team, even if the perspective is off-the-wall or the skills are mediocre.” (Tim Harford, 2016)

Also interesting is that in both studies, the team of all like-minded thinkers of similar values felt good about the consensus in reasoning and were confident about the conclusion – even though they were most often incorrect. In contrast, the teams with a diverse thinker were insecure about the decision process and unsure of their conclusion – even though they were most often correct. It appears that introducing diversity in the team causes a little chaos in the process and a better outcome in critical thinking.

In summary, two things come to mind when considering the question of why some teams outperform others. First, we know that all teams get stuck. The best teams minimize the interruption by quickly finding a solution. These teams ensure that every member of the team has a voice. It is the dissenting opinion (the new idea) that will often “unstick” the team. Second, we also know that high-performing teams become proficient at collaboration and innovative thinking. Scrum Masters and team leaders should endeavor to build teams with enough diversity to ensure that groupthink does not inhibit innovative thinking. Diversity in the team may cause a little chaos in the process but will ensure the best outcome in critical thinking. And critical, innovative thinking is a necessary component of a high performing Scrum team.

agile team, critical thinking, diversity, groupthink, scrum leadership, scrum team

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