One of the fundamental paradigms in Agile is around self-organizing teams. It is a concept that creates both enthusiasm and frustration in leaders and employees, and the reason is that people usually have very different mental images of what a self-organizing team actually is.
In this blog post, I want to comment on a few statements that I sometimes hear from managers and business owners. Hopefully, this will help you understand the idea of self-organizing teams better. I will be using some references to the systems theory, as I find it naturally fitting to the Agile team concept and very appropriate to explain some of the ideas.
So, let’s play True or False 🙂
#1 Letting teams self-organize leads to chaos.
Believe it or not, this is not the case. Here comes my #1 reference to the systems theory. A team presents a system, and as such – it has different needs that are satisfied by different internal roles. This is how the self-organization part works – different leaders might emerge in different situations to close a gap that is identified in the system, and guide it to a more stable and productive state, as they collectively learn from the experience.
Standing aside might be a really painful process for a manager who is used to being in control of how the system shall be organized. Moreover, it is sometimes difficult to make sense of all the internal dynamics and relations that exist inside the system when one observes it from the outside. However, internally it is following a pathway moves the team to achieving its goal, as they are driven by the accountability they hold (yes, self-organizing teams are accountable for achieving their goals!).
Of course, managers can facilitate process by coaching the team through it. For example, the whole process can be a lot more streamlined, if the team establishes their ground rules and clarify their collective values in the beginning. This will create a basic structure and build the first relations that will hold the system together.
#2 Self-organizing teams shall be kept relatively stable.
As the system is maturing, there are invisible links that are being created among its members, and they are starting to instinctively recognize the system needs and respond to them by taking an appropriate action. This means that the less we mess and intervene, the better the system will function over time (provided that it has all the necessary resources to do so, of course).
Taking team members out, replacing them, or putting new people in the team essentially resets the system, and all links need to be rebuilt. Therefore, it is recommended that Agile teams are kept relatively stable.
#3 Self-organizing teams still need managers.
Managers are the ones that often bring the system together – they select the team members, and ensure that the team has the needed resources to work on their goal. The role of managers is to observe the system, and be a coach both on system and on individual levels, so that they can identify system’s health and facilitate problem solving and decision making when needed.
#4 Self-organizing teams can thrive in any environment.
Self-organization involves some fail & learn experiences, and this needs to be tolerated in the environment where the team operates. If the company always punishes error instead of encouraging takeaways and learning, there is no space left for experimenting and adapting, hence no space for self-organizing. On the other-hand side, a learning organization tolerates a no-blame, solution-focused culture where open communication is a must.
#5 The performance of self-organizing teams will deteriorate overtime – they will become lazy.
Actually, this depends both on the team and the organization. Let’s look at the team first. Initially, when the team starts working together, their velocity will most certainly fluctuate across the iterations. It will take them several iterations to come to a relatively stable velocity trend. Then, as they go, they will gather experience – both functional and as a system, and their velocity will gradually increase.
However, it cannot continue forever – theoretically, they will reach a point of optimal efficiency, and will not be able to go above it (unless something in the system is changed, but then you can expect an initial drop in productivity before they go back and above the previous levels). At this point of optimal efficiency, the team needs to be engaged enough to sustain it over a longer period of time.
Here, the organization comes into play to create an environment that stimulates further engagement in the team. For managers this might mean that they need to coach the teams into defining more challenging goals that keep them focused, combined with an ongoing support for the team.
#6 Some people are more inclined than others to work in a self-organizing teams.
Well, this is an easy one. We as people are different, and we have our individual needs, values and beliefs (either enabling or limiting). Some people are more open to experimenting and taking responsibility for their action. They might also be more resilient to failure, thus more persistent in continuously improving towards reaching a goal. Others prefer safer ways, they’d rather rely on existing practices and processes, rather than reinventing the wheel.
Actually, having a mix of both might be a strong combination for a self-organizing team, as more risk-avert people might sometimes bring some common sense into discussions. In general, however, for a person to fit in a self-organizing team, at least some level of curiosity, willingness to change, and accountability is needed.
#7 You still need some formal roles and authorities in a self-organizing teams to ensure the work will be done well.
Referring back to what we said about systems in the first statement, the internal roles in the system are spontaneously filled, as the needs emerge. For example, a team architect does not necessarily need to be appointed formally – whenever there is a need for architectural decisions, the most experienced and knowledgeable developer in the team will probably take the lead naturally. What is crucial, however, is to ensure that all skills the team needs to perform its work well are present in the team. If skills are missing, there will be indicators that the system is not functioning well, and it will be struggling to find solutions. These are the signals that managers need to be specifically sensitive to, so that they can actively support their teams. The rest will be handled internally by the collective wisdom of the system.