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What Are Self-Organising Teams?

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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 first in a series of articles that will connect readers with the topic. Starting with “what are self-organising teams?”, we will continue in the coming weeks with “why do we need self-organising teams?” and “what is Leading Self-Organising Teams all about?”.

What Are Self-Organising Teams?

“Knowledge workers have to manage themselves. They have to have autonomy”, leadership guru Peter Drucker states in his Management Challenges for the 21st Century.

This resonates with the Agile idea that “self-organising teams choose how best to accomplish their work, rather than being directed by others outside the team.” (Scrum Guide). But what are self-organising teams? What is self-organisation about? What qualifies a group of individuals to be a team?

Let’s start with the latter question. What are teams? In line with team expert J. Richard Hackman we see that this is often far from being clear. The term works a bit like a Rorschach test: people read into it what they wish, they have different things in mind when they think and talk of teams. In many cases real teams get confused with so-called co-acting groups. Whereas co-acting groups consist of people working in proximity to one another but not depending on what the others do to complete their respective jobs, real teams have four features:

  • first, joint tasks to fulfil a compelling mission;
  • second, clear boundaries in terms of information flow, alignment with other organisational units, resources or decision-making policies;
  • third, authority to self-manage within these boundaries; and
  • fourth, stability over some reasonable period of time.

In deciding the extent of a team’s authority, one must mindfully consider who is in the best position to handle each of four functions that must be fulfilled by any organisational unit:

  • setting directions for the team, i.e. specifying the organisational objectives, the core purpose or mission that spawn the myriad of smaller tasks;
  • designing the performing unit and arrange for needed organisational support for the work i.e. structuring tasks, deciding who will be involved in performing them, establishing norms of conduct for work behaviour, and making sure teams members have the resources and assistance they need to carry out their work;
  • monitoring and managing the work process, i.e. collecting and interpreting data about how the work is proceeding and initiating corrective action as needed;
  • executing the work, i.e. applying physical or mental energy to accomplish tasks.

By devoting these core functions to the responsibility areas of either management or team, Hackman provides us with an authority matrix to distinguish four levels of team self-organisation (Figure 1)

Figure 1: Authority Matrix

Since the world is not just black and white, we see more than just one form of self-organisation. To us, self-organisation is rather an umbrella term for a continuum encompassing:

  • manager-led teams that leave team members only the authority for task execution while managers monitor and manage work processes, design the context and set the direction. From our point of view, many expert groups in functional silos as well as traditional project management “teams” are practical examples of this set-up;
  • self-managing teams put members not just in charge for task execution but also for managing their progress. Within IT, we see a lot of Kanban teams applying this approach either focusing on team tasks or on team-bridging value streams;
  • self-designing teams give members the authority to modify the design of their team and/or aspects of the organisational context in which they operate. Most real management teams are in this position as well as some Scrum teams especially when Lean/Agile is scaled;
  • self-governing teams have responsibility for all four core functions as shown by corporate boards of directors, worker cooperatives or start-ups.

Despite all these structural differences there are a few criteria that all kinds of self-organising teams have in common. According to Francis Heylighen, author of “The Science of Self-Organization and Adaptivity” all self-organising systems are characterised by:

  • distributed control, i.e. absence of centralised control,
  • continuous adaptation to a changing environment,
  • emergent structure from local interaction,
  • feedback, both positive and negative,
  • resilience due to the system’s ability to repair and adjust.

Referring to the original “principle of the self-organising dynamic system” as formulated by the cybernetician Ross Ashby in 1947, Heylighen helps us to understand that self-organisation is kind of the natural process of how global order arises out of the local interactions between the components of an initially disordered system. Thus, self-organisation is the rule, not the exception of systemic behaviour. Even in the agile world it is neither “a breath of fresh air” (Ken Schwaber) nor “a secret sauce” (Jeff Sutherland).

Despite all the fashionable metaphors we use, self-organisation is a law that is applicable to many different systems. There is a broad variety of examples from neuroscience, physics, chemistry and biology: the brain with all its connected neurone that construct mental models without relying to single control; plants such as aspen groves the largest known living organisms on earth. each tree contacted to all others by the same underground root system; flocks of birds, gangs of elk or herds of sheep, being able to move together in a synchronised manner as if they were a single animal especially in avoiding danger or changing course; or ants creating a system of finding food out of seemingly random movements.

What conclusions can we draw from these insights? What do the laws of systemic behaviour mean for self-organising teams in a business environment? First of all, we should remind ourselves that becoming a self-organising team does not happen overnight. Nor is self-organisation something that happens one time and remains forever within the very same boundaries. As a matter of fact, a team is never done with the process of self-organisation. They have to continually reorganise themselves in an sense-and-respond manner to shifting demands and contexts. In other words, self-organisation is an ongoing process: whenever the set-up changes, the organisation and the team need to repeat the whole process.

Self-organisation is not just about the whole team within its specific organisational context. Each team member has to self-organise as well to figure out what to do and how to do it. And every day, everyone on the team has to coordinate his or her self-organisation with the rest of the team. In order to synchronise, we run regular meetings such as the “Daily Standup”, “Operations Reviews” or “Retrospectives”.

Another pillar of all self-organising teams is that they build on a tricky balance of similarity and difference. Paradoxically, in order to effectively exploit their differences, team members need to share enough similarities. As German systems thinker Diether Gebert shows in his data-driven survey on innovative teams, teams have to grant each other some trust in the first place. Without a certain amount of trust in advance they can neither explore their individual backgrounds nor inspect and adapt current work processes. Later on, an appropriate balance of recognition and reward as well as fair play are important factors for further self-empowerment. Disrespect kills self-organisation in a similar way to social loafing.

It is a truism that self-organising teams need effective interaction to realise their full potential. For teams holds true what Russell Ackoff says about systems in general: its performance “is not the sum of the performance of its parts taken separately, but the product of their interaction.” But as we have already seen self-organisation does not mean the team gets to decide everything themselves. Self-organising teams are not boundary-less. On the contrary, a clear set of expectations and responsibilities is needed to contain self-organisation. In her landmark article on “Conditions for Self-Organizing in Human Systems” Glenda H. Eoyang points out three conditions that must be met for the self-organising process to generate coherent patterns:

  1. A containing (C) boundary that surrounds the system to define its identity. Simply speaking, there is no clear “self” without a clear separation of “the other ones”. This kind of container builds on organisational pillars such as a clear-cut mission, a compelling direction and challenging goals, operating guidelines and clear decision-making policies.
  2. Significant differences (D) such as different knowledge, experience, education, age, gender or cultural background. High performing teams know how to acknowledge and incorporate the diversity of the team and how to build on the differences that make a difference.
  3. Transforming exchange (E) guiding the interactions both within the team and with its environment. According to Eoyang, this transfer of information, energy or material between interdependent people or units is critical to the ability to self-organise into system-wide patterns.

Far from being a pure constraint, a boundary always marks an opportunity for communication. As such, a boundary has effects in both directions. In Margaret Wheatley’s words: “if people are free to make their own decisions, guided by a clear organisational identity for them to reference, the whole system develops greater coherence and strength. The organisation is less controlling but more orderly.”

As part of a bigger system, each unit of the CDE model is dependent on a supportive context. In Hackman’s metaphorical words: “If a well designed work team is a seedling, then the organisational context is the soil in which it is planted, the milieu that provides the nutrients needed for it to grow and bear fruit.” Less metaphorically speaking, according to Hackman, the contextual support for self-organising teams consists basically of four sub-systems:

  • information – in terms of providing teams the data that members need to competently plan and execute their work
  • infrastructure – in terms of appropriate physical space (a factor many co-located teams struggle with), technical infrastructure and money.
  • education – in terms of any training, coaching or technical assistance the team may need
  • reward – in terms of providing positive, economic as well as symbolic consequences for good team performance.

Coming back to Eoyang’s model of self-organisation, we can now draw a simple picture that shows how container, difference, exchange and context play together:

Figure 2: Expanded CDE model

Figure 2 has a collection of elements of different size, shape and colour in its centre, representing team members with different background, strengths and skill-set. As the linking arrows show, the members are connected with each other, building up a cross-functional team by intense exchange/communications. The whole team interaction is surrounded by a boundary, partly dotted to indicate that this container is an open rather than a closed system. Far from being a classical black box for its environment, the team is dependent on its environment. They need a supportive context in terms of the indicated sub-systems of infrastructure, information, education and reward. And they need an external agent, represented by a snowflake symbol, who is responsible for this support. This is the role of the line manager.

Although eliminated from the picture to keep it as simple as possible, the interdependence of the team, its connectedness in terms of value stream and the necessary customer focus and organisational awareness are key to any self-organising process.


We have observed that real teams have a compelling mission, clear boundaries, authority to self-manage and stability. We have observed that self-organisation in teams is built on a tricky balance of similarities and differences between team members; self-organisation requires clear boundaries and a supportive context; self-organisation is characterised by distributed control, continuous adaptation, emergent structure, feedback and resilience. Lastly we have observed that self-organisation takes time.

The next article in this s
eries will explore the question “why do we need self-organising teams?”


  1. Beck, Kent, et al: Agile Manifesto (2001).
  2. Drucker, Peter: Management Challenges for the 21st Century. HarperBusiness (2001).
  3. Eoyang, Glenda H.: Conditions for Self-Organizing in Human Systems (PhD dissertation, 2001).
  4. Hackman, J. Richard: Leading Teams. Harvard Business School Press (2002).
  5. Hackman, J. Richard: Collaborative Intelligence. Berrett-Koehler (2011).
  6. Heylighen, Francis: The Science of Self-Organization and Adaptivity (2001).
  8. Wheatley, Margaret J.: Leadership and the New Science. Berrett-Koehler (2006).

About the Authors

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.

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.

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