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What Is Leading Self-Organising Teams All About?


“The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organising teams”, the Agile Manifesto announces. This raises a few questions: What are self-organising teams? Why do we need them? What difference do self-organising teams make? How can we support self-organisation? Could there be any way to help this special kind of teamwork to emerge?

Surprisingly, there is relatively little material on what self-organising teams are about and how to support them effectively. Organisational development consultant Sigi Kaltenecker and agile coach Peter Hundermark are writing a short book “Leading Self-Organising Teams” to be published by InfoQ later in 2014.

This is the third and final article that will connect readers with the topic. The series began with “what are self-organising teams?” and continued with “why do we need self-organising teams?”. The current article takes on the topic of what it means to lead a self-organising team and thus provides an introduction to the rest of the material in the mini-book.

What Is Leading Self-Organising Teams All About?

What exactly do we have to do to capitalise on self-organisation? How can we best support our teams? What special kind of leadership is needed?

In our previous article we contrasted the traditional the idea of centralised “heroic management” with a post-heroic style of “leadership as a team sport”.

What we have learned from our interviews with diverse practitioners during the study on “Successful Agile Leadership” mirrors our own experience as managers and consultants who have been involved in different companies. The lesson, in a nutshell: effective cross-functional, hierarchy-bridging collaboration of different players is a key factor for success.

Figure 1 shows how we can distinguish traditional leadership from what we call leadership as a team sport. The circles in the figure represent team members as well as line managers (in grey), the lines with arrowheads represent the direction of communication and its intensity (bold lines for more intensity and frequency). Whereas the traditional model builds on one-way communication and the control of individual team members who are only loosely coupled, co-acting rather than working as a team, the model of leadership as a team sport has a very different set-up: all group members, including the manager are part of a network of relationships nurtured by intense communication that enables joint decision making. This makes up a real team.

Figure 1: Leadership as a team Sport

Let us use the analogy of a soccer team to better describe what this might be about. What can we learn from soccer for leading in a dynamic environment? Perhaps, this is the most important lesson: to be successful as a team, i.e. to win a game depends, on the willingness and ability to help each other. This help builds on many skills:

  • the general skill to professionally understand and master your specific role on the team (goal keeper, defender, mid-fielder, striker) and how this role is supposed to play together with the other roles in order to act as a real team;
  • physical skills such as running and sprinting, blocking or tackling your opponent, jumping, heading or bending as needed;
  • technical skills with the ball such as properly passing and receiving, dribbling and tricking, holding and kicking;
  • tactical skills such as understanding the whole concept of the game as well as the flow of certain moves and being able to play without the ball. for instance in situations where each player has to decide whether to be part of an attack or stay behind to secure the defence, running to be in the right place at the right time, running to a certain place to draw the attention of your opponent away from other players, and the like;
  • strategic skills in order to keep overview of the current situation on the field, see the big picture of the game and act accordingly, be aware of special opportunities to attack and score and exploit the well-trained routines of so-called standard situations (e.g. free kicks or corners) and to respond to changing game situations as quickly as possible no matter if the changes are caused by your own team or your opposition.

Figure 2: The Soccer System

For sure, the contribution of each player in terms of passes completed and tactical importance is always different. As the so-called network analysis shows (see centre Figure 2), there are always players who are more active (as shown by the different size of the individual circles). But this does not necessarily mean that the most active ones dominate the whole game. Part of the fascination of team sports is that everybody can score the decisive goal—even the goal-keeper, as we know from some of the most spectacular moments of soccer history.

What is the role of the coach? Does he control the game? Is he steering his team? Does he monitor every move? Is he involved at all? Actually, his influence is quite limited. Once the game starts, a soccer team is a self-organising unit following a very specific dynamic. Regardless of whether a coach presents himself as one of the stars, jumps around in his coaching zone, shouts instructions to key players, or insults the referee—there is no opportunity to control what is going on in the field. The team is on its own to perform the best they can.

Does this mean that a coach is superfluous? Definitely not. From a systemic point of view she has a high influence on the team’s composition, their tactics, training program, playing style and so on. She can also replace some players during the game and she can use the break between the halves to run a review and change tactics. Interestingly, the main task of the coach is observation, as German systems thinker Fritz B. Simon has pointed out. The coach observes each individual player as well as the specific exchanges of the whole team and their interaction with the opposing team. Furthermore, the coach provides professional feedback based on his observations. In line with Simon, we might say that the primary purpose of the coach is about creating the right level of awareness by establishing constructive feedback loops.

We can begin to see that team leadership as well as organisational intelligence in general is not something that resides in a few experts, regardless of their status as specialists, key players or formal managers. Instead, it is a system-wide capacity directly related to how open the organisation is to new, especially disconfirming, information, and how effectively that information can be interpreted by anyone in the organisation. Even more, systems thinkers state that leadership is best thought of as a behaviour, not a role. We need acts of leadership in various situations, but this need can be satisfied by many different people, and by different people ant different times. At one moment I can be leading and at another I am being led.

Building on our analogy, we would like to state that leadership in the 21st century is more about the collective than it is about a single individual. And since we also learned long ago from Drucker that “the purpose of business is to create (and keep) a customer”, so it follows that it is definitely also more about the relationships of this collective with its customers.

Again, this team-based approach to leadership resonates with the reports from Agile practitioners interviewed for our study on “Successful Agile Leadership”. Across different companies, background and expertise the hierarchy-bridging and cross-functional collaboration of different experts has been seen as a decisive factor for top results. Leadership emerged from various sources and was not limited to formal management positions.

The practical experience resonates with theoretical discussions of leadership as a trait of the system rather than that of an individual manager. With the publication of Katzenbach’s and Smith’s classic, “The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performing Organization”, shared leadership became a part of the lexicon.

Shared leadership means that all team members:

  • take on responsibility for the overall success just as much as for individual development;
  • achieve and “sell” results together;
  • distribute authority situationally in favour of technical as well as social competence;
  • establish network-like communication models;
  • bring decisions approved by all colleagues to the centre of actions;
  • force critical examination of work processes and, if necessary, adaptation; and
  • subject the quality of collaboration to regular consideration.

With his model of a “leaderful practice”, Joseph A. Raelin goes even a step further. He defines four qualities of contemporary leadership. From Raelin’s point of view leadership is concurrent in terms of the simultaneity of leadership performance; collective in terms of a shared responsibility that cannot be delegated to hierarchical superiors; collaborative in terms of intensive teamwork; and compassionate in terms of each team member supporting the other.


In the initial article we defined a “self-organising team”. We observed that real teams have a compelling mission, clear boundaries, authority to self-manage and stability. We observed that self-organisation in teams:

  • is built on a tricky balance of similarities and differences between team members
  • is characterised by distributed control, continuous adaptation, emergent structure, feedback and resilience
  • requires a supportive context
  • takes time

In the second article we argued for their need. We observed that change is the only constant in our world and “business agility” is demanded. Our old maps for running organisations were no longer valid; we needed new ones based on systemic thinking. The devolution of power and granting of autonomy to the knowledge worker was essential to regain and retain their engagement. We concluded that self-organising teams guided by coach-leaders were central to the new operating system.

If we agree then that self-organising teams are something we both need and want, the consequent challenge is to discover what kind of new leadership skills are demanded to enable this self-organisation to take place, and how aspirant leaders might acquire these.

This article suggests a new, post-heroic model of “leadership as a team sport”. We use the role of the sports team coach as metaphor for the modern leader. We suggest that such leaders are unable to directly control the work of their team members, yet we argue that they nevertheless still have an essential part to play in the organisation.

The further chapters of the forthcoming book “Leading Self-Organising Teams” are devoted to describing and populating a simple model for leading self-organising teams. The model is based on three interconnecting elements: values, skills and tools. We define four foundational values and four essential skills areas that make up this style of leadership. Then we provide a generous toolbox of simple and practical, yet highly effective tools related to each skill that we have learned and applied in our own practice of leading teams and helping others to do so.


  • Drucker, Peter F.: The Essential Drucker. Harper 2001.
  • Kaltenecker, Siegfried and Spielhofer, Thomas: “Successful Agile Leadership” 
  • Katzenbach, Jon; Smith, Douglas: The Wisdom of Teams. Creating the High-Performing Organization. Collins 1993.
  • Raelin, Joseph A.: Creating Leaderful Organisations: How to Bring Out Leadership in Everyone. Berrett-Koehler 2003.

About the Authors

Peter Hundermark is a Certified Scrum Coach and Trainer and a Kanban coach at Scrum Sense. He focuses on organisational development, change management and leadership development to help bring agility to the world of work. He is the author of Do Better Scrum. Reach him at @peterhundermark.


Sigi Kaltenecker is the joint managing director of Loop Consultancy in Vienna, helping individuals, groups and organisations to successfully master their professional challenges. He is a Certified Scrum Master, Kanban Coaching Professional and co-editor of PAM. Sigi co-authored the book “Kanban in IT: Creating a culture of continuous improvement” which will be published in English in 2015. Reach him at @sigikaltenecker.

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