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Ensuring Success for Self Organizing Teams

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Self organization is defined as a phenomenon in which the internal organization of the system increases in complexity without being guided or managed by an outside source. Self organization is deemed to be a fundamental attribute of Agile teams. However, successful self organization needs a lot of support from not only the team members but also the management and the organizational environment. In order to help the team move towards self organization, the right level of management involvement is required.

Esther Derby suggested that most teams moving towards self organization face two extremes of manager involvement

  1. Helicopter Managers – who step in too soon to rescue thereby depriving the team to think and solve problems together.
  2. Absentee Managers – who would not step in at all irrespective of whether the team has all the necessary skills to tackle the problem.

Esther suggested the following guidelines for making self organizing teams successful

  1. If the team has sufficient skills to solve the problem then give them space else ask questions to help them get unstuck. This would help in building the skills eventually.
  2. When time is not of the essence give the team time to work the issue. This would improve the team feeling and collaboration.
  3. If the solution space is limited in scope and impact, or the decision is reversible, give the team space to solve the problem, even it there's a good chance they'll get it wrong the first time.

Esther added,

There's always a trade off between expediency and a learning opportunity. Self-organizing teams can outperform manager-let teams....but only if the managers are willing to navigate the balance.

Similarly, Dave Nicolette suggested the following factors for growing effective self-organizing teams.

  1. Clearly define the boundaries – Without this the team is lost on how much they can manage themselves and when should they invoke management help. Without the definition of boundaries, teams err on side of caution and do not take any decision without seeking permission.
  2. Tolerate mistakes and allow time for learning – management should not jump in at the first problem. They should allow the team to learn from their mistakes and take corrective action on their own.
  3. Keep the team challenged, yet not frustrated- The manager should be aware of the team’s skill level and limitations. He should be able to provide the team with enough challenges to keep them in a state of learning and growth.

A study done a few years on the successful model of self managing teams, placed a lot of emphasis on the balanced involvement of management with the team. The right balance allowed the teams to flourish in their decision making and problem solving capabilities.

Thus it is important to build some structure around the teams on the path of self organization. It is important for the managers to be aware of the skill level of the team to step in or stay back at the right moment and act as a catalyst for the team to reach a state of self organization.


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