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Q&A on Creating Great Teams

Posted by Ben Linders on Feb 20, 2016 |

The book Creating Great Teams - How Self-Selection Lets People Excel by Sandy Mamoli and David Mole explores the concepts of teams that pick themselves and provides step-by-step instructions on how you can use self-selection to establish teams.

InfoQ readers can download a sample of the book Creating Great Teams.

InfoQ interviewed Mamoli and Mole about the concept of self-selection, the good and bad things of having team selection done by managers, how a self-selection event can look, the advantages and pitfalls of self-selection, buy-in for self-selection by managers and employees, and how self-selection can lead to increased happiness.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write a book about self-selection?

David Mole: I think right from our first self-selection event when we originally used our process, we knew we were on to something. The way people interacted at the event, the feedback afterwards and the way the teams worked together once they had formed in this way showed us that we had something awesome.

Our biggest question when we first looked at Self-selection was how to go about it, how do you facilitate and enable people to make these choices? And having gone through a huge amount of effort to design, create and improve a process, we wanted to share that with the world. A book seemed like a great way to do that and we really hope that in years to come people will look at the book as the stimulus for organizations all over the world who are contemplating or have chosen self-selection.

Sandy Mamoli: After our first major self-selection event I wrote a series of blog posts that generated a lot of interest. We received a lot of emails from people around the world wanting to know more and several companies in New Zealand, Australia and Sweden approached David and me for help to run their own self-selection events.

From that we realised that our ideas resonated with a lot of people and we also started to receive feedback from companies we had helped with self-selection. This made us realise that we had something really, really good in our hands that people could use in their own organisations, and the fastest way to spread the message was “simply” to write a book.

We worked with our publisher, Pragmatic Bookshelf, who provided invaluable help and coached us through the writing process. We hope that lots of people will use our book to introduce self-selection into their organizations.

InfoQ: Can you explain the concept of self-selection?

Mamoli: Self-selection is a way of letting people choose which team to work in. It is a facilitated process of letting people self-organize into small, cross-functional teams. It is the fastest and most efficient way to form stable teams and is based on a belief that people are at their happiest and most productive if they can choose what they work on and who they work with.

Self-organizing teams are groups of motivated individuals who work together toward a shared goal and have the ability and authority to take decisions and readily adapt to changing demands. We like self-organizing teams, but that’s not what our book is about.

Our book is about self-selection, which is a process you can use to set up self-organizing teams in the first place. Self-selection happens at an organizational level rather than at a team level and is a way to get everyone into teams. Another term for a self-selected team is a self-designed team.

Mole: Quite simply, it is an alternative to the most familiar way of selecting teams in most businesses which is for several managers to come together and decide how teams should be made up. In defining a process and talking about the benefits of self-selection, we think we have not only provided a viable alternative but that when businesses try this way of selecting teams, they will see the incredible benefits and never go back.

InfoQ: You mentioned in the book that you were inspired by the way that Spotify develops software. Can you elaborate about that?

Mamoli: The terminology of squads, chapters, and tribes was very useful to us because Trade Me had experienced a failed attempt with cross-functional teams several years ago, which had left the term "cross-functional team" somewhat tainted. The word "squad" helped us convince people to give small teams another try.

We also loved Spotify's culture which seemed to be very similar to Trade Me's and we were thrilled to find out that there were other companies who not only shared our belief that scaling works best if it’s based on autonomy and decentralisation but even had experience in doing so.

What was different was that some companies, like Spotify, are born agile. They start out with small, cross-functional teams and scale by adding more teams as they grow. But what about the rest of us? We were organised in a more traditional way and had to move quickly toward a small-team structure without descending into chaos or wasting valuable time. And that's where self-selection came in: It was the fastest way to organise the company into a Spotify-like structure.

Mole: One of the great things about Spotify (there are many!) is how open they are and how much information they share with the world. Their original 2012 white paper was nothing short of inspirational and at the time it was our catalyst for major change. In fact, we were so inspired by them that we got in touch with our agile coaching friends and flew from New Zealand to Sweden to spend several days working with them and see for ourselves how things worked under the hood.

InfoQ: Can you mention some of the good and bad things of having team selection done by managers?

Mole: It can sometimes be an enjoyable process as a manager to consider the optimal team selection and to assist people in getting what they want and in some cases, challenging them to work on new or interesting projects. The problem with that process however is that it is fraught with error, speaking from experience I would get it wrong far more often than getting it right. As a manager you want to balance people’s wishes, availability and personal relationships in order to make the right decisions but you don’t always have enough information to do that correctly. Moving people around like pieces on a chessboard can lead to arguments later when you realise that an important issue has been missed, or two people simply can’t work together.

As an interesting aside, we saw a real change in what it meant to be a manager as a result of moving away from this method of selecting teams. Instead of spending your time selecting teams and dealing with issues that were escalated by people within teams, you were freed up to offer coaching, to think strategically and dedicate more time to important issues.

Mamoli: Designing the best team doesn’t necessarily mean picking the best people or people with a certain skillset. It means deciding on the best combination of people based on their interdependent skills, preferences, and personalities.

In a small company managers can often do this and it usually works well. A good manager is aware of relationships between people and knows the skills, personalities, preferences and desires for future growth of each of them. Often they come up with team compositions that are mostly right, and it’s a quick and easy way to get team selection done.

However, the model breaks down when a company grows or goes through a period of significant change, such as during an agile adoption. Managers might still know their direct reports’ skills and personalities, but it becomes increasingly difficult to understand the intricacies of relationships among people as the number of relationships increases almost exponentially. You often end up with a distribution of people across teams that is neither optimal for individuals nor the organisation.

In addition, with managerial selection people aren't part of the decision making process and often don't understand why they have been allocated to a particular team. This sometimes leads to resentment and lower buy-in.

InfoQ: Can you describe how a self selection event can look?

Mole: The simple version is a large room full of people, with circles on the wall representing the teams people can choose to join, with each person carrying around their own photograph talking to people and deciding for themselves where they should go. The process we have designed allows for several iterations to get to the right end result, embracing early feedback and allowing people to step back and see the bigger picture before refining their choices where necessary.

There is a great deal of planning and preparation to get to that stage which we explain in the book but in essence we are trying to create an environment where people feel empowered to make their own choices. We give them all the tools they need to create a picture, that by the end, has all the teams populated with people who have chosen to work there. It is usually quite a loud, exciting event with lots of people talking to each other and relishing the chance to make choices about their future.

Mamoli: Isn’t there a saying that a picture says a thousand words? This one sums up our facilitation process:

InfoQ: What are the advantages of self-selection? And the possible pitfalls?

Mamoli: From the data we collected we know that self-selected teams are:

  • more stable
  • happier
  • more productive
  • more motivated

Self-selection honours the principles of trusting people to be responsible adults who can solve complex problems and organise in a way that’s best for the company and themselves. We believe that organisations get the best results when people can choose what they work on and who they work with.

I believe the biggest pitfall is to create too many constraints. I know of a bank that prescribed the roles for each team, the combination of juniors and seniors and required three of the people of each team to be pre-selected. This is not really self-selection and the problem is that it stifles people's creativity to come up with the best solution for the organisation and themselves.

Mole: The idea here is really about empowering the people who know most about what they should do and where they should work, to make the decision. Off the back of that some of the advantages would be that fewer mistakes in the team selection process are made and there is a reduction in the number of disagreements on a team (especially the petty ones that tend to happen when new teams are thrown together!). Also if and when compromises are made, for example when someone joins a team that may not have been their original choice, they fully understand the reasons behind the decision.

One pitfall to avoid would be to address upfront any concerns people may have that their decision or choices may be reversed by managers later. In doing so, the company needs to actively demonstrate their trust before, during and after the event. This will help reassure people that the self-selection process is just that and not some hidden way of just getting people to do what you want.

InfoQ: What are your experiences regarding buy in for self-selection by managers and employees?

Mole: Most people tend to go through the same stages in discussing self-selection, they are shocked and even frightened by the idea at first, later they tend to throw questions out like ‘what would happen if nobody picks one person, like being the last one chosen for sports at school? Of course that never happens, but people tend to go through questions like this in order to test the idea against their current thinking.

It can be quite hard to get full buy-in from both managers and the people involved, as with any new idea or change, people will be sceptical and challenge the concept. That’s totally ok and it is important to go with people on that journey and bypass it or try to skip ahead.

It is very important to emphasise that the people involved will be sceptical and not necessarily buy-in too. That can be counter-intuitive, why would people not want to choose their own team, you may ask but there can be a range of reasons and it is difficult for people to move into this new way of thinking.

Mamoli: We know from experience that people will likely feel scared or challenged by a concept like this in the beginning. Often their first reaction is shock and surprise, and they usually present you with a long list of fears and reasons why self-selection probably won’t work.

As David mentioned we observed that most people, including us, seem to go through a number of stages:

  • Stage 1: Doubt (What if It Doesn’t Work?)

At the very beginning people are taken aback by the idea and voice fears mostly in the form of “what-if” scenarios. The main sentiment is “Nice idea, but really, this is not going to work.”

  • Stage 2: Inspiration (What if It Does Work?)

At this stage people begin to see the potential of self-selection. The power of the idea of working with whomever they want on whatever they want begins to take shape in their consciousness. It’s now seen as a far-fetched but feasible option.

  • Stage 3: Acceptance (How Will We Make It Work?)

Employees start to realize that self-selection is a serious option and that issues will be overcome. They start to trust the process and actively support the idea.

The best way to achieve full buy-in is to be absolutely transparent with everyone involved, including management. It is important to communicate the ideas of trust, engagement and better performance through well-designed teams. We always had good results with being very honest about the fact that there is no guarantee for success but that the worst-case scenario is a day of lost productivity and reverting to the traditional management selection, but with a lot more information than before.

In summary, to get permission, the key is being transparent, honest, and determined.

InfoQ: Can you explain why trust is so important for self-selection?

Mamoli: Trust is the foundation of any healthy and productive work environment. Letting people self-select into teams is a manifestation of a culture that trusts and respects its people. It is an expression of trust in employees to be smart, engaged and motivated and ultimately also an expression of trust in organisation's ability to hire responsible adults.

Self-selection is based on trusting the people who work in the organization — the engineers, testers, business analysts, designers, user experience professionals, and product owners—to come up with the best way to structure their teams. It seemed radical when we started, but it worked. Removing the managers from the equation and trusting in the employees involved created a fascinating story and incredible outcomes for everyone.

For most people self-selection is a leap of faith but in the end they learn to trust that they will have the right people focused on the right work.

Mole: This process can be quite a significant change for people to go through. We are talking about a change from telling people where to go and what to do, to people deciding for themselves, actively weighing up the pro’s and con’s and committing to a decision. For that to happen, trust is required from all angles.

Managers need to trust people to make the right decision and people need to trust their managers that the decision they make will stand, that it won’t be reversed or ignored later. By even discussing a self-selection process, you are of course demonstrating a level of trust in your people to make the right decisions.

InfoQ: Do you think that self-selection can lead to increased happiness on teams?

Mole and Mamoli: We actively measured the happiness of the people involved, asking them 6 questions and tracking the results over more than a year. You can read about the questions, their background and how we tracked them in our blog post "How we measure happiness. We saw real and significant increases in people’s happiness in the workplace and this was backed up by all the conversations, observations and feedback we got. It takes time for these things to have an effect but we are confident that there was a really positive impact from the introduction of self-selection. As studies have shown, we also saw significant rises in productivity as a result of this, with happier people being also proving to some some of the most effective.

InfoQ: If people want to learn more about self selection, where can they go?

Mamoli and Mole: We have a section on our website, Self-Selection on Nomad8, that accompanies the book and gives lots of information and help to anyone considering using self-selection. Here you can find interviews with others who have tried self-selection, helpful hints, stories, information that didn't make it into the book and a downloadable self-selection kit. We are regularly adding more information to the website and if you would like to contribute with your experiences we’d love to hear from you.

And they can of course always read the book. It’s quite good :-)

About the Interviewees

Sandy Mamoli (@smamol) is an Agile enterprise coach and consultant at Nomad8 with a focus on culture and leadership. From working in Amsterdam and Copenhagen to being one of New Zealand’s leading coaches, she brings her practical European flair and passionate advocacy for all things Agile to businesses around the world. Sandy is a former Olympian, a geek, a gadget junkie, and an international public speaker.

David Mole (@molio) coaches, consults, and presents about Agile processes, teams, and motivation. He recently led an Agile transformation at Trade Me where, building upon the work of Spotify’s culture, he created dozens of high-performing Agile squads. He is a highly regarded public speaker and author. A former professional poker player, David works for Nomad8 helping teams and organizations perform better.

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