Self-organizing teams are an integral part of any Scrum project. In fact, the Agile Manifesto includes self-organizing teams as a key principle, saying that “the best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.”
However, there is often a lot of fear and uncertainty among management on how these teams will operate successfully and meet the business requirements efficiently. A common criticism is, “We cannot just put some random individuals together, tell them to self-organize, and expect anything good to result.”
An agile team should not be a random collection of people. In fact, those in the organization responsible for initiating a Scrum project should expend a lot of effort in selecting the individuals who will comprise the team.
Agile Manifesto includes self-organizing teams as a key principle, saying that “the best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.”
This blog walks you through the common pitfalls that one may face while managing self-organizing teams, essential traits of self-organizing teams, and how leadership can play a significant role.
3 common pitfalls to avoid when managing self-organizing teams
There are several factors that can hinder a team’s efforts of becoming self-organizing. Some of these could be lack of trust, command & control, and hierarchical organization mindset, the delegation of tasks, and lack of right people/resources in the agile team.
Though there are many benefits of self-organization, there are also unique challenges. Leaders need to understand them before applying the right solutions at the right time.
These are the top 3 pitfalls that I feel are quite crucial to be addressed-
1. Reliance on skills specialists
If a team comprises members who are not cross-functional, then they would be able to pick a task only if it matches their limited skill-set; thereby compromising the prioritization of the project.
Given this, it is essential to create a culture of cross-learning and pair program for team members to become cross-functional. Besides, all the skill ingredients necessary to go from idea to implementation should be represented in the team.
This might require bigger teams initially, but as team members acquire cross skills, the team size can be reduced gradually.
2. Non- persistent team members
Non-persistent team members impact the stability of self-organizing teams. It takes time for team members to adjust and tune in their ways of working with each other and at the same time acquire skills required for the project. Frequent changes in team members hampers team’s flow and results in instability.
3. Role-specific dominance
Having role-specific dominance within a team, for instance, when only a Tech Architect or Lead is allowed to make technical decisions, would simply defeat the whole purpose of the wisdom of crowds and experiences.
Hence, there should not be any role-specific dominance in decision making. Rather, it should be team members who collectively weigh the options and come to a common decision in interest on iteration success. Scrum Master should only facilitate the discussion and help with any conflict resolution to provide constructive direction to the topic.
Significant Traits of Self- Organizing Team
The teams that are supported by a trusting and empowering style of leadership and are guided by the agile values and principles tend to "self-organize", to collectively decide and do what is needed to make and meet commitments, develop a quality product, respond to feedback, and adapt to changes. A self-organizing agile team is-
a. Autonomous: There is no single central decision making authority. Control is distributed collectively amongst the team.
b. Adaptive: The team dynamically adjusts as needed across roles, functional specialties, and other boundaries, to solve their problems and improve their performance.
c. Accountable: The team collectively shares responsibility for results and members hold each other accountable for outcomes.
Simon Baker writes, “...an experienced agile software development team is a highly social group that is self-organizing around the principles and acts with coordination and collective behavior. This collective behavior comprises:
The daily scrum, when done effectively, is an almost pure exercise in openness because each person lays their tasks, challenges, and progress for the whole team to see and course correct.
Self-organizing teams work differently than command-and-control teams because they have different values as introduced by Ken Schwaber-
a. Commitment: Each person is committed to the project goals. That level of commitment can be achieved when the team has the authority to make decisions to meet those goals, and everyone has a say in how the project is planned and executed, i.e., team empowerment.
b. Respect: When team members have mutual respect, they can trust each other to do a good job with the work they have taken on.
c. Focus: If every team member is focused on the iteration goals and given the freedom to do whatever work is needed to meet those goals, then the whole team can organize itself and easily redirect whenever a change is needed.
d. Openness: Everyone on the team should always be aware of what others are working on and how it moves the project towards its current goals. Many of the agile practices are aimed at encouraging openness among the team members.
Task boards, for example, allow everyone to see all of the work being done by each team member, and how much work is left to do. Burn-down charts let each person gauge for themselves how quickly an iteration is meeting its goals. The daily scrum, when done effectively, is an almost pure exercise in openness because each person lays their tasks, challenges, and progress for the whole team to see and course-correct accordingly. All of these things can help the team to create an atmosphere of transparency, mutual support, and encouragement.
e. Courage: Team members should have the courage to stand up for the project. When openness is chosen over opaqueness, the team gets stronger rather than making an individual stronger at the expense of the team; and it takes courage to do that! Scrum teams dare to live by values and principles that benefit the project.
It takes courage to say, “contributing to this team to produce valuable software is more important to me than how the company sees my contribution.”
The Role of Managers and Leaders in Self-organization
Leadership in self-organizing teams is meant to be light-touch and adaptive for providing feedback and subtle direction. Given this, the skills of managers have shifted from planning, controlling, directing, and delegating; to completely different aspects like facilitating, motivating, building trust, supporting team decisions, aligning people, setting direction, expanding capabilities, & anticipating and influencing change. Leaders should create an environment where teams can gain physiological safety and feel empowered to collectively make decisions for their work.
Therefore, It is essential for leadership and management to help ensure putting fewer constraints or controls on the team for better productivity and overall project success. There are many, but listing a few key areas where leadership can play vital role for self organizing teams to emerge and succeed -
- Have the right people on the team and ensure that they are happy, motivated and enjoy doing their work.
- Create a culture of mutual trust, transparency, involvement, and learning.
- Set the clear roadmap and priorities for the team.
- Make the entire team aware of the bigger picture rather than a few key members. Share frequent updates on priorities and related business decisions.
- Empower team to collectively take decisions for the common goal. Follow the principle, “We fail as a team, we succeed as a team”.
- Maintain a subtle balance between command and influence. Use control to influence, and influence to empower.
- Help the team identify what to measure and how to measure depending on project needs. Present related data in retrospection for teams to reflect and adapt.
- Come up with appropriate challenges and help the team in impediment resolution.
Additionally, teams should be pushed out of their comfort zones so that they can acquire cross-functional skills based on project needs, and ensure collective decision making, essential to driving self-organizing teams. This way, teams become capable of managing their workload, distribute work based on need and best fit, participate actively in team decision making, and share the responsibility for problem-solving and continuous improvement of their work process.
Mishkin Berteig writes in Team Self-organization;
"In agile teams, this concept of self-organization is taken quite far. Team members collaborate to get work done. No one orders a team or an individual to do specific work. The team members volunteer for work that they see needs doing, even if it is not something that is in their area of expertise. An agile team is constantly promoting learning in its people. Agile teams are also cross-functional so that the team can get work done without relying on external services. The team, therefore, represents a complete work unit capable of taking a function, valuable to customers from start to finish, from idea to deployment."
A self-organized team is possible when people carry shared purpose, principles, and values; they support, trust and respect each other, and they want to succeed. They collectively do what needs to be done and use the ‘wisdom of crowds’ to build the software and deliver a quality product.
An excerpt from, Of Ants and Men: Self-organized teams in human and insect organizations-
“To cope with today’s complex, fast-paced, and ever-changing business environment, companies need to shift their overall structure to produce adaptive and highly responsive organizations. The use of teams, particularly self-organized teams with their reactive, emergent properties, maybe one way of achieving this goal.
In other words, insect societies often harness the power of self-organization such that with the appropriate set of feedbacks, individual interactions, and proximate mechanisms, group-level adaptive behavior simply emerges. No one directs the foragers where to find food, the network of trails and interactions takes care of that; individuals are not allocated to tasks, the reverse is true: the tasks allocate the workers.”