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  • Writer's pictureAllison Bacher

How & Why Self Organising Teams Work

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

Self-organisation is a frequently misunderstood word

Agile Team during the Daily stand-up

"Self-organisation" is a frequently misunderstood  term, and when there is no clarification about what it means, goals and how to measure progress, teams will typically create their own convenient meaning. Senior management need to trust them and act as supporters rather than distractions. Teams need to earn that trust. Self-discipline, openness, positivity and ownership of consequences at all levels are strong behavioural traits within high performing, self-organising teams.

We describe self-organising teams as follows...

  • They have a certain level of decision-making authority. This level may change and evolve over time, but there is clarity about when teams can make decisions.

  • They are responsible for working toward meeting the vision.

  • They take ownership of how they work and continuously evolve and grow through having a continuous improvement mindset. In other words, where they are today is not where they will be six months from now.

They do this by means of...

  • Self-sufficiency - the team has or finds the information, knowledge and skills required to deliver their work

  • Self-goal setting - the team set clear goals, realistic estimates and performance goals

  • Self-expectation - the team take pride in their work and have high expectations for performance

  • Self-criticism & self-supporting - the team are self-critical, discourage poor performance and at the same time genuinely support each other to deliver great work

  • Self-improvement - the team gather constant feedback from their own data, their peers and stakeholders so that they can review their performance and find opportunities to improve

Self-organising systems spontaneously organise themselves to cope with unpredictability, they employ the wisdom of the crowd and are not dependent on the response of a single manager, who may or may not have all the answers - the team members are expected to take action and make decisions as they have the best understanding of the current situation.

One of my favourite quotes from the late great Steve Jobs...

“It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do”

Be prepared: traditional command & control style managers find it’s hard to let go, change their style to support mode. It takes time and the opportunity to let the team make mistakes and learn. Many organisations are afraid of failure so the concept feels too risky. Remember that the teams will be working on small items and use metrics to demonstrate and manage their own performance.

Here’s the thinking behind this…

Agile as per the Agile Manifesto is designed for and applicable to knowledge workers. Peter Drucker created the term “Knowledge Workers” back in 1959 to describe the “thinking people” that “make the business go round”. Many organisations use the term yet fail to go deeper and revise their management style to suit.

Most knowledge workers utilise a fraction of their true potential. Research demonstrates that practical people, like those working in projects, “do-ers”, respond best to Kinaesthetic learning, because they retain more information by doing than listening, reading or thinking. They need the space to experiment, learn and create. Combine these thoughts and it’s obvious that command & control style management simply squashes the opportunity to unleash their potential by telling them what to do, how to do it and how long to take.

Agile team working collaboratively

So that raises question: How should we lead and manage these people to get the best out of them? How do we motivate highly paid, independent thinkers, when facing facts - so many of them don't like to be managed? The answer – servant leadership not management.

We move from telling to leading, providing direction, goals and purpose for individuals. It encourages people to take ownership of their work. It's aligning everyone to "Get the right people on the bus" (Jim Collins) and focusing on achieving the common goal. 

The flip side of course is that this works when practised by a mature team!

Teams don’t wake up one day with the ability to self-organise, and nor should

you expect them to or let them. Here are some tips to get started and evolve:

  1. Spend time selecting your initial team. It may change over time but start with the best mix of skills and experience you have available at that time. Balance depth of knowledge on the team – encourage pairing of juniors with seniors.

  2. Aim for diversity – in this case not particularly ace, religion, gender etc but thinking styles. Try to get a mix of optimists, a pessimist or two (maximum!) introverts and extroverts. We want consensus but we don’t want “sheep”.

  3. Have an experienced Coach and/or Scrum Master to facilitate self-organising, gradually handing over decisions to the team. A really good Scrum Master will be almost redundant after a year!


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