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Leadership for Self-Organized Agile Teams

by Ben Linders on Apr 18, 2013 |

Organizations that implement self-organized agile teams do still need managers, but the way that the managers interact with their teams will change. Teams who will be working towards realizing their goals are not controlled by their managers by telling them how to do their work, but are empowered by managers with servant leadership, and coached and mentored to learn and continuously improve themselves.

Ilya Pozin, the founder of digital marketing agency Ciplex, describes in a LinkedIn post want your company to grow? fire your managers! what he did in his company to improve the quality of work and have happy employees. This helps his company  to have satisfied clients, lowered costs, and a better overall result. He realized a goal oriented team culture, with leadership that supports learning and continuous improvement; similar to things that are used in agile software development. In his company he created teams which look similar to self-organized agile teams:

I created small three to five person teams and removed any ‘bosses’ those teams or team members had. I also dismantled any “senior” or “VP” titles within the team. Though leaders will naturally emerge within a team, there’s no need to have a strict reporting structure.

The managers give goals to teams, and are not telling them how to do their work. The teams work with a kind of Scrum sprints, and reflect frequently to improve themselves:

I gave each team a goal, one that could easily be measured in short intervals--like one or two weeks. This helps employees to see exactly what outcome they’re working for--they now focus on the why and no longer on the how. Given a goal and consistent short time-frames, teams are able to measure their performance and learn from previous mistakes, allowing them to improve during the next time interval.

Teams are managed by servant leadership:

(…) managers and bosses are repositioned as team support, working for the teams, helping them in whatever they need. Former high-level executives provide help and support, rather than telling employees what to do or how to do it.

And team members are coached so that they can learn from problems that they have, and are able to solve them:

Don’t correct employees or solve their problems--guide and support them with leadership instead. If there’s a problem, ask key questions to guide them to the solution instead of jumping in to take the reins and own the problem.

The above post from Ilya on LinkedIn shows how leadership with self organized teams leads to results for the company. Earlier this year, InfoQ published the article self-organizing organizations (for real) which describes how an organization has become self-organizing, and what they have learned from doing it.

In the Dzone article what does a self-organizing team has to do with leadership?, Gil Zilberfeld talks about leading agile teams, and what organizations can do to adopt leadership. He explores the question "does a self-organizing team need a leader?":

We’ll see leaders emerge, whether we want to or not. It’s part of the self-organizing thing. So there will be one or more leaders with different types of influence. We can’t know in advance who will be the leaders, and we can’t really direct it.

According to Gil, managing self organized teams require a different management style, which support and guides teams to help them to become effective:

(…) we need to understand that self-organizing teams are more effective than teams under command-and-control pyramids. As managers, we need to step back, and let the team gain autonomy to get more effective.

(…) to become effective managers, they’ll need to know about how to evolve self-organizing teams by themselves. We’ll need to tell them all about complexity and uncertainty. About how to influence from outside by taking a step back.

In the blog post leading an agile team is like owning cats, Mike Bovich describes with the use of an analogy what agile leaders can do to support their teams. He start by explaining that self-organized agile teams ask for changes in the way that they are managed:

To be an effective agile leader, you must be willing to give up control and serve your team. This is perhaps the biggest challenge for many of us – it goes against our instincts, but is absolutely necessary to be successful.

Developers are complicated. Each one operates on a different wavelength and the only way to decipher them is to put in the time. Like cats, they can tell the difference between a genuine interest and someone just going through the motions. Put in the time and you will reap the rewards. Neglect your employees and you will see productivity suffer.

Agile leadership should promote sustainable development according to Mike, which balances work and play time:

Expect your teams to work hard, but don’t overdo it. And when work is over, make sure your team takes the time to unwind. It doesn’t do anyone any good if the team is putting in crazy hours. Productivity drops and morale suffers. As an agile leader, it’s okay to expect high performance from your team, just remember to keep it balanced.

In the blog post the forgotten agile members: management and executives, Steve Martin explains that the roles of managers and executives will have to change to make an agile transformation succeed:

Just because you have self-organized, empowered Agile Teams doesn’t mean that Management or Executives are no longer involved. They are. Without these roles, you risk doing an Agile rollout, which doesn’t typically yield expected returns. But transformations do. And Managers and Executives are essential to make this happen. This requires their roles change too, just as the roles of Team members do.

Leadership and collaboration between managers, executives and teams is crucial in an agile transformation, all involved have a contribution in it:

Executives need to be present and available, but not directive. It’s a fine line that takes practice.

Instead of daily hands-on managing and assigning work, the Manager role transitions to that of mentor and problem solver.

Teams also must be open and willing to both receive and give feedback with both Management and Executives.

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Thanks by irene melisse

Thanks, Ben, for this useful article on leadership of self-organizing teams. I enjoyed reading it.

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