About the Webinar: High-Performance Teams – Why the ‘Who’ Matters Less

This month’s webinar from the Scrum Alliance was: High-Performance Teams: Why the ‘Who’ Matters Less, by Fabian Schwartz.

He began the webinar by talking about the 2004 USA Olympic Basketball team. For those of us who don’t follow the Olympics, or any sports at all, the USA Olympic Basketball team usually wins gold. But on 2004, they finished third. The most surprising part, the team was made mainly of Superstars. So what happened?

Different Cultures

Here he spoke about the Stanford project on emerging companies, where they studied the impact of culture on company performance, and how it could explain that third place.

During the project, they identified 4 different types of company cultures:

  • Star: all about looking for and recruiting potential superstars.
  • Engineering: those with the right speciality are the most important in a company. Lawyers in a law firm, engineers in a software company.
  • Commitment: how people fit into the company’s culture.
  • Bureaucracy
  • Autocracy

They analyzed companies with these cultures over many years, trying to figure out how many of those actually got an IPO (go public), and how was their performance (increase in market capital, etc) before and after getting it. They concluded that companies that had the Commitment culture were most likely and the fastest to go public, while the Hybrid (companies that  mixed different cultures) were the least likely and slowest to go public. They also concluded that commitment companies were less likely to fail (disappear, de-listing, liquidation), that star companies have the largest post-IPO (after going public) increases in market capital, followed closely by commitment companies. Unsurprisingly, autocracy companies perform the worst, followed by engineering companies.

So, having identified the best type of culture, how can they change it? It’s not like a CEO can send a mass email stating the new culture and hope that it will change everything. Can we change culture? Schwartz the stated that to do that, we need to start by defining what culture is:

“Culture is how we do things around here.” – McKinsey

Then, to change culture, we need to change the way things are done. So let’s begin by understanding commitment.

Some ideas on commitment


There are many new theories on motivation and the importance of purpose. Usually, motivation is divided into extrinsic motivation vs. Intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation is about those things we try to do or give to our team members in order to motivate them; whereas intrinsic motivation is what actually drives our team member.

Most companies have bonuses (money, days off, training); extrinsic motivation. Interestingly, money doesn’t work much as a motivator, but it does as a de-motivator. If the salary won’t even cover their basic needs, they will be demotivated.

Schwartz used the minimum salary in Colombia as an example of this. Imagine a person that receives only $250 dollars (minimum salary) a month and is expected to take care of his/her family.  That person will be constantly thinking on other ways to get money for his family, which means that s/he will be focusing on that instead of his/her actual job.

So how do we achieve intrinsic motivation? According to the book Drive by Daniel Pink, with purpose, mastery, and autonomy.  Purpose is what guides us; it is important to feel meaning in what we are doing. Mastery is being excited about getting better at stuff, like learning to play an instrument even though you won’t be getting any money out of it. Autonomy is the ability of being auto organized. But autonomy without a purpose doesn’t really work because it is not directed anywhere. We need a self purpose and a team purpose; and for a team, we need trust.



Schwartz then went on talking about the internal connectivity in a team, or “How to build trust”.

He used the Navy SEALs, Flight Crews CRM and NASA’s mission control room as examples.

Part of the Navy SEALs’ training is Hell Week, which happens on week 4. It’s 5 ½ days of continuous training, with only four hours sleep (total), where they had to endure cold, wet, and exhaustion. Most people quit after hell week, and the ones that survive aren’t necessarily the strongest, but the best team players. And of course, after going through that together, they created a lasting bond. Having such a tough bootcamp isn’t ideal for companies, but less rigorous bootcamps will help create that bond.

The Flight Crews’ Crew Resource Management (CRM) is a 5 step program followed by most commercial flight crews. It’s purpose is to give the crew the confidence to talk with anyone, including the boss.

This is the 5 step program:

  1. Address crew member by name (not ask for anyone, but someone in specific)
  2. State your concern
  3. State the problem as you see it
  4. State a solution
  5. Obtain agreement (or buy-in): feedback.

This program has helped decreased a lot of accidents by giving crew members trust inside their own teams. But it’s not encouraging trust between teams.

And that’s where the NASA Mission Control Room example comes in. In those control rooms, they always ensure they have people from all departments, so they can communicate and collaborate in real time. This of course, encourages trust among departments.



Schwartz continued by discussing how the team structure also contributes to the performance. In a team where every member is specialized in something different, bottlenecks are created very often. That’s why it is recommended to have cross-functional teams; where everyone knows a little about everything even if they do have one expertise.

The A team approach is very similar. An A team (team that is executing the mission), always has every expert twice, so if one expert gets shot, they have a another one. But, they also cover those cases where both experts are shot by having T-shape people. The vertical stroke of the T corresponds to an expertise, while the horizontal stroke is general knowledge on the other expertise within the team. In other words, if both medics on a team get shot, any other team member can help with medical tasks when needed. That person won’t be as good or as fast, but they can still help.



Transparency or shared consciousness is also essential for the commitment of a high performance team. To explain shared consciousness, Schwartz talked about the study made in Stanford University about The Collective Consciousness of Ants. If you pay close attention to ants, you will noticed that they are always synchronized and seem to know all the time what they need to do, without having bosses around giving the orders. And that’s how a team should look like.

He then continued with an example of a friend of his that worked at Mercedes Benz. In a certain year, the team working on the production of brakes for of their new cars had some performance issues. So they decided to analyze what was going on. One of the first things they did, was ask all team members what they were producing, and their answer was: breaks. That is when they realized that there was a lack of context: they were producing breaks, but they didn’t even know for what. So they had a general meeting with the team where they showed them the car and told them that the breaks they were producing were essential for those cars. In other words, they shared with the team the Big Picture.
After a while, they measured that team’s performance and it had improved a lot. Also, when asked what they were doing, instead of saying “breaks” they answered that they were producing the car. By having contextual understanding, there was shared consciousness.

However, for this to actually work, we need transparency. Information needs to be shared with everyone, not just a selected few. The problem is that sometimes, people fear that sharing information with everyone means that it might fall in the wrong hands. But most of the times, the risk of sharing information with more people (transparency) usually outweighs the risks.


Google Aristotle Project

As most people can assume, Google is obsessed with team performance, which is why in 2012, they started the project Aristotle. When starting this project, their hypothesis was that a team with multiple stars meant higher performance. When they actually checked the numbers, some teams that had a lot of superstars had low performance while teams with no superstars had high performance. After analyzing those teams they identified 5 attributes for Team Performance:

  1. Teams need to believe that their work is important
  2. Teams need to feel that their work is personally meaningful
  3. Teams need clear goals and defined roles
  4. Team members need to know they can depend on one another
  5. Teams need psychological safety (how comfortable do you feel taking risks in this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed)

Schwartz then took these things learned to explain why the case 2004 USA Olympic Basketball team. There were so many egos, so many stars in that team, that they got distracted and forgot to focus instead on playing the best game they could. Which is why focus is so important.



Schwartz started explaining focus with the distractions mentioned in Patrick Lencioni’s Overcoming the 5 dysfunctions of a team, 2005:

  • Ego, people only think about themselves: what is in it for me? At least my area is doing well. But in a strong team, no one is happy until everyone is succeeding.
  • Career Development & Money. In order for this to not be a distraction, is to be open about what people need. It’s like the case mentioned before about the person having to provide for his/her family with just $250 a month. S/he was more worried about finding money elsewhere than the actual job.
  • My Department; what does middle management prioritize first:  the team they lead or the teams the are part of? Most of the time they’ll say the team they lead and this is because they like being leaders more than being followers.

With all these distractions, how can we keep focus? Focus on the Scoreboard. In a Scrum team, this can be the scrum board, burn down chart or during daily meetings. In other types of team, ensure you use some kind of metrics to measure performance with the team, but not too many. They should be meaningful, and always visible so the team can know how they are doing.


The High Performance Commitment model

We need a purpose for the team and we need to be able to focus on that purpose. We then need to trust, and for that we need psychological safety. We also need a cross functional team and transparency. If we apply all that for enough time, we’ll get commitment. And if you do it for a longer time, then we get higher performance.

This model belongs to ScrumColombia.org and is not a scientifically proven model, but each of the 6 arms are based on scientific research. They are doing more research and studies for it to be scientifically proven model.

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