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Smarter Than the Smartest: The Wisdom of Teams

8 December 2009

Smarter Than the Smartest: The Wisdom of Teams

By: Sanzio Castor, CSM

Despite clichés of modern business theory, teams have a remarkable role in Scrum, not because of their power to define, arrange, distribute and perform the methods of work into a Sprint, but because of the frequent and present values in the diversity of a group.

The idea is that a collective can solve problems better than most individuals within the group, including experts. A group's intelligence depends on a balance of autonomous information that each member holds - not necessarily specialist knowledge - and common information that every team member shares. This combination of independence, decentralization, diversity of opinion, and aggregation helps to keep the group smart.

In which fields do the skills of the group stand out from the experts'? The problems that require cooperation are the most susceptible to a set of issues inherent with the wisdom of crowds. Cooperation challenges involve organizing individuals' self-interested actions in a way that creates mutual gain. It's counter-intuitive but groups are typically smartest when the people in them act as much like individuals as possible, with no directive leadership, and the independence to carry their own sources of information and analysis. But how do teammates foster mutual cooperation instead of selfish behavior? Robert Axelrod in his classic The Evolution of Cooperation, argued that the key to cooperation is "the shadow of the future," i.e. decisions have future consequences and do indeed affect the decisions of others. When colleagues repeatedly deal with each other over time a stable pattern of direct reciprocity is developed. This cooperative approach allows the team to accomplish the tasks in a Sprint regardless of its differences.

So, does a team with members who divide the same perspectives, motivations, and purposes facilitate reciprocal collaboration? Not necessarily. "Work force" is far different from groupthink, which is "a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas." As Lu Hong and Scott E. Page perfectly state, a team seen as a collection of agents "outperforms individuals partially because people see and think about the problems differently. Additional people create the opportunity for more potential solutions. These additional solutions are only possible if people differ. If all people encoded and solved problems identically, multiple heads would be no better than one."

In a team consisting of a heterogeneous mix of members' social background and ideology, it is a good idea to quickly reflect on the strategies that should guarantee effective communication for collaboration, especially in the Daily Scrum meeting:

  • Each member must see value and should be able to identify real benefits of engaging in the collaboration;
  • Each member ought to be able to modify his own behavior to adapt to changing situations;
  • The practice of listening to others should be promoted;
  • Multidirectional communication where one speaks and others listen and respond must be encouraged;
  • Knowledge and information exchange should be supported;
  • A synergy must be generated by synchronizing the actions, optimizing use of resources, and leveraging the actions of others.

The estimation technique of planning poker assures the benefit of the team's collective intelligence. The standard example is a jar of pennies. When guessing how many pennies there are inside, the average of all the guesses is often more accurate than any individual guess. So, how often has estimation felt like guessing how many pennies are in a jar?



James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies, and Nations (Anchor Books, 2005).

Scott E. Page, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies (Princeton University Press, 2007).

Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation (Basic Books, 1984).

Lu Hong, Scott E. Page, Problem Solving by Heterogeneous Agents (Journal of Economic Theory, 1998),

Definition of groupthink on


Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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