How to Win the Arms Race of Ideas


In today’s fast-paced IT environment, ideas are the common currency. And, make no mistake about it, the race for the most creative talent and teams has never been hotter. More so than ever before, effective managers are bringing together talent from across the organization in Agile-inspired development “pods” or “tribes” to take advantage of varied experience and skills. ISG reports that, in June of 2016, 75 percent of provider’s development projects were completed in a distributed Agile model. Gone are the days of deep, hierarchical teams comprised of like-minded, singularly located and singularly focused individuals. Today’s best working groups are diverse, flat and networked.

Numerous studies show that diversity, especially experiential diversity, has a significant positive impact on team performance. Solutions that come from teams with a mix of backgrounds, experiences and methodologies are typically more innovative than those of an individual in isolation or those of a team made primarily of like-minded colleagues. These studies confirm what we already know to be fundamental tenants of innovation: build from an existing body of knowledge and innovate through the recombination of ideas.

Sounds easy enough, right? The challenge here is that the discomfort that often comes along with diversity – the un-like-mindedness – can be the natural enemy of another requirement of high-performing teams: trust. As Robert D. Putnam describes in his book Bowling Alone, the amount of “social capital” – a scaled-up version of trust that allows people to build networks of relationships in a society – can be directly correlated to the economic activity of that society at a macroeconomic level. In the business world, organizations lacking adequate social capital are less able to produce economic activity, which results in even less opportunity to build trust.

Managers or scrum masters of small to medium-sized development pods, typically less than ten individuals working on a sprint, can break this cycle by focusing on building what Google calls “psychological safety” – the shared belief that interpersonal risk-taking is good and that speaking up in a group will not be rebuffed or punished. This idea, like social capital, is both a benefit in its immediate interpersonal implications and in aggregate at the corporate and partnership level on up.Diversity-Trust Project Aristotle – an initiative Google embarked on in 2012 to study what made certain teams successful – shows that psychological safety is the primary driver of team performance. It follows, therefore, that a manager’s ability to expedite a new team’s arrival at psychological safety is then directly tied to that team’s overall performance as measured by the accumulation of high-quality output.

One way to grow both trust and diversity in a team is to leverage – and even embrace – the unacculturated and inexperienced. Although an individual will ultimately aim for corporate acculturation as a means to career growth, scrum masters and Agile coaches should consider variants of experience within pods and variants of aggregate pod experience within sprints as a form of diversity to provide differing points of view. Inexperienced developers and testers are, in a very real way, “outsiders.” They necessarily bring a fresh perspective and challenge the plateauing nature of experience and “group think.”

At first this may seem like a contradiction in terms: on one hand we need the discomfort of diversity to feed innovation; on the other hand, we need psychological safety to grow a successful group dynamic. How can a team be both uncomfortable and safe? Striking this balance is the manager’s primary objective. Quickly bringing together diverse teams and building psychological safety is the fastest and most repeatable way to produce high-performing sprints. The increased adoption of semi-autonomous, matrixed and diverse Agile pods is evidence of this.

Managers looking to boost innovation will look at every aspect of their employees, including skills and (in)experience, for opportunities to recombine. They will encourage and empower the least experienced employees to engage with digital experts as they design products, solutions and services for the digital future.

ISG experts in organizational change management, digital strategy and Agile project delivery work every day with enterprises to create productive and innovative teams. If your enterprise is looking for ways to embark on Agile project delivery or just want to find out more about building high-performing teams, contact us