Some of my most productive and rewarding professional experiences have been in the context of working in cross-functional and agile design/development teams. Indeed cross-functional teams are one of the essential elements of the now popular Scrum software development method.
There has been a lot of debate in the corporate boardroom as well as around the water cooler about the optimal size of working teams. According to a Fast Company article, in the early days of Amazon.com Jeff Bezos “came up with the notion of the “two-pizza team”: If you can’t feed a team with two pizzas, it’s too large. That limits a task force to five to seven people, depending on their appetites.”
However, nobody to date (that I know of) has examined why small teams work better together and why cross-functional teams work better as well.
For those who are impatient, here are the answers. To have high performing agile innovative teams you need three ingredients:
1. A clear task tied to a clear business goal
2. A team that includes the right mix of competencies, minimum one of each, and no people who provide just opinions without producing deliverables.
3. Individual accountability for the team results
One really great explanation for why small cross-functional teams can be high performing comes, out of all places, from Social Psychology and the science behind cooperative learning.
In the early 1970s one of the luminaries of 20th century Social Psychology, Elliot Aronson, developed the Jigsaw Classroom learning technique in response to a very serious and pressing social problem – the “turmoil and hostility” that accompanied the process of desegregation of the Texas school system. Here is what Aronson and his students were up against. At the time, the school system was based on individual achievement and competition for grades. The student qualities which enabled achievement were, among other things, command of English language, self-confidence, and self-promotion. Aronson gives the following description of a “typical fifth grade classroom …: The teacher stands in front of the class, asks a question, and waits for the children to signal that they know the answer. Most often, six to ten youngsters raise their hands, lifting themselves off their chairs and stretching their arms as high as they can in an effort to attract the teacher’s attention. Several other students sit quietly with their eyes averted, hoping the teacher does not call on them. When the teacher calls on one of the eager students, there are looks of disappointment on the faces of the other students who had tried to get the teacher’s attention. If the selected student comes up with the right answer, the teacher smiles, nods approvingly, and goes on to the next question. In the meantime, the students who didn’t know the answer breathe a sigh of relief. They have escaped being humiliated this time.”
The issue was that after desegregation of the Texas schools, the classrooms were shared by the self-confident fluent English-speaking children and by the underprivileged minority children who did not have command of English language and/or whose cultures did not value high self-confidence and self-promotion. As a result of this situation, students from different social and cultural groups self-segregated, between-group scholastic performance differed wildly and there was pronounced “turmoil and hostility.”
Elliot Aronson’s brilliant solution to the above problem was based on decades of research in Social Psychology. Here it is in a nutshell (10 steps – http://www.jigsaw.org/):
- “Divide students into 5- or 6-person jigsaw groups. The groups should be diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, and ability.
- Appoint one student from each group as the leader. Initially, this person should be the most mature student in the group.
- Divide the day’s lesson into 5-6 segments. For example, if you want history students to learn about Eleanor Roosevelt, you might divide a short biography of her into stand-alone segments on: (1) Her childhood, (2) Her family life with Franklin and their children, (3) Her life after Franklin contracted polio, (4) Her work in the White House as First Lady, and (5) Her life and work after Franklin’s death.
- Assign each student to learn one segment, making sure students have direct access only to their own segment.
- Give students time to read over their segment at least twice and become familiar with it. There is no need for them to memorize it.
- Form temporary “expert groups” by having one student from each jigsaw group join other students assigned to the same segment. Give students in these expert groups time to discuss the main points of their segment and to rehearse the presentations they will make to their jigsaw group.
- Bring the students back into their jigsaw groups.
- Ask each student to present her or his segment to the group. Encourage others in the group to ask questions for clarification.
- Float from group to group, observing the process. If any group is having trouble (e.g., a member is dominating or disruptive), make an appropriate intervention. Eventually, it’s best for the group leader to handle this task. Leaders can be trained by whispering an instruction on how to intervene, until the leader gets the hang of it.
- At the end of the session, give a quiz on the material so that students quickly come to realize that these sessions are not just fun and games but really count.”
The implementation of the above method had stunning results. Each child’s success was predicated on the success of the group and involved actively listening to each group’s member who held a key to solving the big picture. This required children to interact meaningfully with other children who were very different from them. In a few week’s time, schools which adopted the Jigsaw Classroom method became truly integrated – children from very different backgrounds started interacting with each other during class and playing together during recess. The success of the program was also evident in students’ academic performance.
There are interesting parallels between this technique and the performance of highly productive and creative cross-functional development teams:
- Cross-functional teams are diverse by definition (have different functions represented)
- They have leaders
- The work is divided into chunks (sprints)
- Each team member is responsible for a specific deliverable
- Some time to get the deliverable done is a must
- “Experts groups” exist in the form of functional communities (Engineering, Research, Design, etc.)
- Individual accountability is necessary to ensure success
Hopefully, this short account of a very rich subject matter will shed some light on the Psychological mechanisms behind the workings of high-performing cross functional teams.
What do you think?