What I have to say about self-organizing teams

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Remember Agile manifesto? ‘The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams’. But why self-organizing teams? How to build them? How do they emerge?

When I say “self-organizing teams” top managers usually think ‘teams which need no management’, ‘magic teams which work twice as much’. They behave as if we can just hire 10 nice people, put them in one room and tell them “And now you have to self-organize.’ We talk a lot about such teams, but rarely can we assemble one. Some of my colleagues even say that it is a luxury to have such teams and we just can’t afford them.

I tried to collect all my thoughts on the self-organizing teams in this post.

What is a self-organizing team

‘It’s like a unicorn: everyone talks about it, but no one has ever seen it,’ as my friend says. I don’t agree with this, as I worked with al least 2 of them. They emerged almost spontaneously (hope I was at least a little responsible for that), but not because it was our organizational strategy. We just had wonderful people assembled together and no super pressure from the top management.

So what it is like when your team is self-organizing:

  • a self-organizing team does not need directional control and supervision. No one should “assign” tasks and checking their progress. Yes, they need mentoring and help, but they are not waiting for anyone to come and “lead” them.
  • a self-organizing team wants to know and knows everything about the project and product, understands the requirements, is not afraid to ask questions or suggest something.
  • a self-organizing team has the feeling of ownership and commitment. They are proud of the work they do. a self-organizing team takes responsibility. Every member can lead a solution of a specific issue when they feel they can cope with it or they have matching expertise.
  • a self-organizing team can be given a goal and watched how they progress towards it. You only need to help them when necessary, like when the outside environment puts some obstacles on the team’s way. A more mature team can even go further and set the goals by themselves.
  • a self-organizing team sets it’s own rules inside some bordered space and ensures everyone follows them.
  • a self-organizing team evolves, adapts and can solve a broad range of tasks, using all the areas of expertise of it’s members. They collaborate, they never leave team members stuck, but rather help them out as much as they can.
  • a self-organizing team monitors and manages it’s progress.

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What is not self-organizing team

I should definitely mention some of the misconceptions about the self-organizing teams:

  • Self-organizing team doesn’t need management. The truth is that they still need management. But it is a very different type of management than we are used to. Usually managers are very scared to empower the teams. They are scared to lose “control”. Self-organizing team needs no command managers, but rather “servant” managers – managers that can work together with the team to help them draft rules, coach and help integrate with each other (usually we have many teams working on one product). Managers also help with hiring new team members. So it’s better to say that self-organizing teams need “a little” management.
  • A team that will work twice as much as an ordinary commanded team. Managers expect some miracles from people. And when they say “twice as much” they usually mean “twice as much hours” or “twice as much tasks”. But why are not they talking about results? Managers have in their hands much more complicated tools than just “task solvers”. Why not using them?
  • “You have to do nothing to get a self-organizing team. Just get 2 developers, QA, a designer and tell them to self-organize. They will assume the manager’s responsibilities, so we can fire the project manager. Oh, wait… Who will be responsible for the delivery?” In reality there is a lot of work done in the background: coaching, helping, a lot of talks, meetings, etc. and members of the team will rarely want to indulge in such activities. Don’t forget that somebody should also care about the motivation, help improve trust and respect between the team members.
  • We can collect 10 juniors and they’ll form a great self-organizing team. The chance winning a lottery is higher. The case is that members of the self-organizing team have to make a lot of decisions by themselves. But if they don’t have enough expertise or experience – it won’t work.

Why self-organizing teams are a luxury

The amount of work is the constant: if somewhere we have less of work, in the other place we should have more of it) That is why when we delegate the “making decisions” work from the manager to the team – this work still remains, but it is performed by the team members now. It means that they have less time left for their professional activities left. This looks true only from the first glance. But we have to understand that when all the decisions are made by the manager, the whole team’s “intelligence” is limited to the manager’s “intelligence”. And you know that managers are usually not the most bright ones. When we empower the team to make decisions we use much more powerful “collective brain” – the intelligence of 10 people, instead of one. But in order to utilize such synergy you have to hire people with brains. And that’s not cheap. So it’s definitely a luxury to have thinking, self-motivated team members.

 

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Managers in outsourcing software development companies usually say, that “with our employees it is impossible. We hire anyone who can pronounce “C++” correctly”. But have they tried? I was surprised to find so many self-motivated people in software development. Just try to sit behind the computer for 12-16 hours a day, learn all that coding rules. Can you now say they are not self-motivated?

If our company is really just “selling hours” – then it is definitely the unnecessary luxury. And here we are back at the main questions – “why”?

Self-organizing teams are not a luxury when you need innovation

Getting back to our high-skilled self-motivated workers. Not only do we have to find them, but make them stay with us and help reach their highest potential.  Just don’t create additional impediments while doing this.

Just:

  • give them a compelling mission.
  • clear boundaries in terms of information flow, alignment with other organizational units, resources.
  • give the authority to self-manage within these boundaries
  • provide stability for some period of time

Thanks Dmitry for proofreading my awfully written text.

12 thoughts on “What I have to say about self-organizing teams

  1. A very nice summary, thank you! And I’d observe that your final 4 bullet points are very consistent with the lessons that can be drawn from complex systems in nature. Margaret Wheatley was among the first to write a management book on this topic, and I believe, just as you recommend, that a common DNA (i.e., clear mission), clear, but porous boundaries (closed systems eventually wither and die), and time to evolve are key essential ingredients. And, of course, the right people – Darwin was right – the fittest survive in self-organizing systems!

    1. Thank you for the comment! I am obsessed now with diving into the complex systems theory, groups behaviour, chaos and self-organization. It is so much deeper than classic management taught me! Directive management does not work so good with software developers. Each time I realize how much I don’t know yet. Life is not enough

  2. Love this post, thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts. Now you have written about what self-organizing teams are and what’s not I’d like to know how to help people grow in their role to adapt responsibility and believing in themselves even when you have deadlines. Especially in difficult and uncertain projects, do you have any recommendations?

    1. Unfortunately, we all always have deadlines. Tough deadlines. I don’t have any magic recipe. The thing that helped in my case was spending a lot of time with the team, speak a lot, not as the supervisor, but as someone who can help. Be wise when you give them goals – deadlines should be realistic. Of course, not all the tasks or projects are interesting. I know how it sounds, but try to find interesting sides and try point them out to the team. Work on team identity, their feeling of “working together on smth big”. Provide them any tools they can need, be always near when they need help. But don’t push them towards the predefined decision. Yes, you’ll have some drops in productivity, some fuck-ups. Yes, you’ll need to invest a lot of time. But how we can build smth new without that? Just trust them and don’t look like you just waiting when someone screws up.
      I can speak about that hours and hours. But shortly all the necessary conditions are described in the last bullets:
      ” give them a compelling mission.
      clear boundaries in terms of information flow, alignment with other organizational units, resources.
      give the authority to self-manage within these boundaries
      provide stability for some period of time”
      And one more thing – think twice if you need that 🙂

      1. Thank you very much for your reply. I work hard on living like this and hope I am not that far away of your advices ;). As a product owner it is about leadership too, as well as to set the stage for the team.

  3. Excellent post . u don’t get a tailored self organized team anywhere .. But you can always motivate your team to become self organized. To act as leader in their own role. Make them aware of their objectives . um yeah sure. They need to be monitored and mentored at times

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