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No More Self-Organizing Teams?

| by Amr Elssamadisy Follow 0 Followers on Nov 27, 2007. Estimated reading time: 2 minutes |

On his Cutter Consortium blog, Jim Highsmith suggested that the term self-organizing team "has outlived its usefulness in the agile community and needs to be replaced".  He suggests that Light-Touch Leadership is more appropriate.  But does this negate the need for self-organizing teams and the focus on individual team members "doing what it takes" to get things done?

Highsmith believes that the term self-organizing team is misunderstood to imply chaotic or leaderless teams. 

So what words do we use to bring the concept of self-organizing back from the brink of anarchy and return it to the realm of empowering, servant leadership rather than no leadership? In my first book, Adaptive Software Development , I used the term Leadership-Collaboration management to replace the concept of Command-Control management. This book went into great depth about the concepts of leaders (as in a person) and leadership (as in any team member can provide situational leadership) as an active part of an agile community and what that leadership model looked like. In his book, Managing Agile Projects , author and Cutter Senior Consultant Sanjiv Augustine also addresses this issue and calls for management to have a “Light-Touch.” The more I think about Augustine’s term, the more I like it, so I’ll offer a combination term to replace self-organizing: Light-Touch Leadership.

But this is inconsistent with others in the field who believe that self-organizing teams are probably one of the major factors of success in any high-performance teams.  In fact, many of us have taken it for granted and "self-organizing team" has become part of our language.  For example:

Jim Highsmith is one of the thought-leaders of the Agile community.  Is the notion of self-organizing teams no longer useful?  Or, perhaps, is it still very important and the fact that it is seen as "chaotic" is a normal growing pain in transitioning to high-performance teams?

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Taking responsibility by Steven Devijver

Finding names for concepts can sometimes take almost religious proportions. So I won't propose a name ;-)

However, what makes good development teams work is this: people take their responsibilities and are reminded why this is important.

It is the role of reminding people that makes teams work. When people are regularly reminded of their responsibilities - and experience how this makes their lives better - there is little else left to do.

The consequence is thus that you need somebody who sets the standards and reminds them to people when things are going down-hill.

Re: Taking responsibility by Chris Hefley

Individual responsibility, yes...but responsible "to the team". One of the great things about Self Organizing Teams, in my view, is that removal of command and control responsibility to an individual, replaced with responsibility to the team. I can always come up with a good excuse for a boss, and bosses are used to hearing and accepting excuses. It's not so easy with a team, when they can just say, "dude...let me help...". It sounds like that's the feature of SOT (I'll start the acronym usage in this thread...I'm already tired of typing it out) that Highsmith is trying to highlight.

But that's not all there is, either. The idea that the team can restructure its own processes internally, to match what works best for it is key, too. No, it's not chaos, because the members of the team are responsible to each other, and the team is responsible to the product owners/customers. Not having that self-organizing ability can actually create chaos. My own preferred method of effecting change with processes I don't like and am not allowed to change is to raise hell and irritate as many people as I can until something gets done. Plus, while I'm creating that Chaos, I'm writing angry emails instead of code. :)

Re: Taking responsibility by Steven Devijver

Individual responsibility, yes...but responsible "to the team". One of the great things about Self Organizing Teams, in my view, is that removal of command and control responsibility to an individual, replaced with responsibility to the team. I can always come up with a good excuse for a boss, and bosses are used to hearing and accepting excuses. It's not so easy with a team, when they can just say, "dude...let me help...". It sounds like that's the feature of SOT (I'll start the acronym usage in this thread...I'm already tired of typing it out) that Highsmith is trying to highlight.

But that's not all there is, either. The idea that the team can restructure its own processes internally, to match what works best for it is key, too. No, it's not chaos, because the members of the team are responsible to each other, and the team is responsible to the product owners/customers. Not having that self-organizing ability can actually create chaos. My own preferred method of effecting change with processes I don't like and am not allowed to change is to raise hell and irritate as many people as I can until something gets done. Plus, while I'm creating that Chaos, I'm writing angry emails instead of code. :)


You still somehow have to guarantee certain outcomes which means team members should either organize themselves or be influenced from the outside.

Re: Taking responsibility by Amr Elssamadisy


You still somehow have to guarantee certain outcomes...


There are no guarantees. The most you can hope for is that the team can deal with it. An excellent example of this is Ricardo Semler's books on Semco - a company which has a complete democracy - the WHOLE friggn company is self-organizing!!!! They've survived Brazil's meltdowns. Check out "Maverick" and "The seven day weekend".

Re: Taking responsibility by Steven Devijver


You still somehow have to guarantee certain outcomes...


There are no guarantees. The most you can hope for is that the team can deal with it. An excellent example of this is Ricardo Semler's books on Semco - a company which has a complete democracy - the WHOLE friggn company is self-organizing!!!! They've survived Brazil's meltdowns. Check out "Maverick" and "The seven day weekend".


Sure, I'm familiar with these examples.

However, you're referring to companies. They have nearly real-time indicators of their performance to which they can adjust, call it the market. Examples are: stock prices, stock volumes, productivity figures, sales figures, ...

Development projects are seldom exposed to market scrutiny. Not every developer or team of developers can function as a market.

That's why you need individuals that can set the standards and follow up on them. Otherwise there is only one guarantee: mayhem.

You can't self-organize if you don't know how.. by Javid Jamae

I know this is a late reply, but I just ran across this.

In my experience, you always have to look at the composition of the team. If you have a team of inexperienced junior developers, then they may need (and want) some guidance. Leaving them to self-organize may be a recipe for disaster. On the other extreme, if you have a very mature team and you don't allow them to self-organize, you're chances are good in having an uncomfortable work environment.

I have been on a purely self-organizing team with experienced developers and the leadership emerged from within a team. Part of self-organization is often the emergence of a leader (implicitly or explicitly).

Do you ever really have to "assign" a leader?

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