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High Performance Teams – Why the Who Matters Less

High-Performance Teams – Why the Who Matters Less

Theory of the perfect team

Google is known for being obsessed with studying their own performance and then adjust accordingly. At one time Larry Page decided to get rid of all the middle management but then quickly realized that the increased amount of direct reports slowed the company down immediately. So, they brought them back. With its Aristotle project Google wanted to figure out what are great teams made of. At the beginning, they focused all on the individual skills of the team members and their performance but the results were sobering. Having all superstars on the team didn’t necessarily made a great team. After hundreds of teams studied, a pattern emerged. In all the high performing teams the members felt psychological safety. Which means they were not scared to admit an error and talk about their ideas. Furthermore, these teams had all empathy for each other (social sensitivity) and equal voices, which means that everybody’s opinion is heard when a decision must be made. This doesn’t mean democracy, still somebody can make the decision but people feel that their opinion is considered. For our Scrum teams that means it’s more a cultural challenge rather than a skill challenge and the culture should incorporate those values:

  •  Psychological safety
  • Social sensitivity
  • Equal voices

I remember talking to the CFO of PepsiCo during my MBA and I ask him: What do should I consider when hiring people? His response was: Hire for fit not for skill. Now I understand why said that.

Why it’s not all about the stars?

A study done at Stanford University with startups from Silicon Valley has revealed that a culture based on commitment outperforms any other form of organizational culture. It even outperforms the star culture, which is based on only hiring super star employees. The measurement of performance here is how many companies made it to an IPO and how they are doing after that IPO. The table below shows the 5 different cultures and their characteristics:

The results of the study are interesting. The commitment model is the most likely and fastest to go public, while a hybrid models (combination of different models) are the slowest and least likely to go public. All other things equal, commitment firms are significantly less likely to fail (disappear, de-listing, liquidation).

Interestingly, once a company is public star firms have the largest increases in market cap, followed closely by commitment firms. Considering the fact above commitment should be the culture of choice as it not only performs best in terms of consistent success it is also very close to the top in terms of post IPO market cap increase.

One thing to note is autocracy firms perform the worst, followed by engineering.


Multifunctional teams

A frequent question I get is: Does multifunctional team mean everybody on the team has to be an expert in everything? This is probably due to 2 facts:

  1.  We want the team to be independent with a few dependencies as possible to the outside. Therefore, we need all skills inside the team.
  2. We advertise that there are no more specialists rather everybody has to be able to help out with other tasks.

Now if there is for example a data base expert on the team, it does make sense that he helps with the database issues but if he has idle time he should help out other team members. On the other hand, when there are a lot of database related tasks and he becomes the bottle neck others should be able to help him out as well.

The approach of A-teams (small engagement unit’s) from the special forces is this: Each team member is cross trained. That means he is usually an expert in 1 or 2 specialties e.g. medic, radio, etc. but is also able to do general tasks in other areas. They have what is called T shaped people, a person that is expert in 1 or 2 areas but has general knowledge about all the other topics. Furthermore, every specialty exists twice (in case you lose the medic, there is still another one).

How can we apply that to our Scrum teams? First, it is important that all necessary skills are on the team to be independent. Then, we want every expertise twice, for example 2 persons with highly developed database skills. but we want also T-shaped people that can work on other parts as well (not only their expertise).

Bringing it all together

In sum, it is not so important to have superstars on the team rather than how the team is operating. The number one indicator is psychological safety followed by social sensitivity and equal voices. Secondly, culture has a huge impact on team performance. Even though, culture is probably the most difficult thing to change, moving to a commitment culture is one the most performance improving steps. Lastly, when it comes to who is on the team it is important to have T-shaped people that do have the necessary skills to work independent from the outside. However, they don’t have to be superstars.


  • Define team ground rules that lead to psychological safety, social sensitivity and equal voices
  • Implement a commitment culture
  • Create a team of T-shaped people covering the necessary skills

This article was initially published by Scrum Alliance


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