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Nurturing Self-organizing Teams

Dr Rashina Hoda achieved her doctorate researching self-organizing Agile teams.  She recently spoke to InfoQ about the work she's been doing and the results of her research.

Q. Firstly congratulations on receiving your Doctorate. I gather you have been busy since the last time we interviewed you for InfoQ – what have you been working on lately?

Thank you. After finishing my PhD, I've been working as a Post Doctoral researcher here in the School of Engineering and Computer Science at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand where I've been lecturing courses and writing more research papers. I've been supervising a final year Bachelor of Engineering student on a project which involves building a Agile story wall for Multi-Touch surfaces. The idea is to build a story wall application for Agile teams which preserves the advantages of paper-based walls such as situation awareness [6] while introducing the electronic advantage such as dynamic space utilization and state feedback. The multi-touch surface platform provides opportunities for extending this application to support distributed Agile teams.

Q. Quite a lot of your recent work has been in the area of self-organising teams; how do teams go about becoming self-organising and what are the important characteristics of a self-organising environment?

Software development teams go about becoming self-organizing by adopting one or more informal, implicit, transient, and spontaneous roles and by performing balanced Agile practices [1]. These roles are Mentor, Co-ordinator, Translator, Champion, Promoter, and Terminator which I described when we last talked. The practices include several low-level Agile practices which are bunched together into three balancing acts at a higher level: balancing freedom and responsibility, balancing cross-functionality and specialization, and balancing continuous learning and iteration pressure. These balancing acts help Agile teams achieve and sustain three conditions of self-organization [7] - autonomy, cross-fertilization, and self-transcendence - respectively.

The important characteristics of a self-organizing environment include an organizational culture of openness where individuals enjoy the freedom to voice their opinions; an informal organizational structure in practice where the lines of formal hierarchy do no inhibit flow of information and feedback; and most of all, an environment of trust.

Q. Why do self-organising teams work more effectively in the software world? 

Self-organizing teams can be highly effective in the software world in many ways:
• Self-organizing teams are made up of cross-functional members that are able to rise to new challenges and organize themselves to respond to changes in project, customers, technologies, and requirements. This property of self-organizing teams is particularly valuable in the fast-paced, ever-changing software world.
• Self-organizing teams are made up of motivated individuals that take ownership of their tasks and have commitment to their collective team responsibilities. Such teams are able to be effectively autonomous and considerably decrease traditional management efforts such as task allocation and continuous monitoring and reporting.
• Self-organizing teams collaborate closely and frequently with their business customers which ensures they build products and applications that are well aligned with business requirements.
• Self-organizing teams are focused towards continuous improvement which drives innovation and creativity in the business solutions they provide.

Q. What are some of the common pitfalls and risks that self-organising teams face, and how can they avoid them?

A common pitfall that self-organizing teams face is the perception that self-organizing teams do not need any management. While it is true that management in the traditional sense of the word - allocating tasks, monitoring progress, appraising individuals, etc - is not required for self-organizing teams, the need for good leadership remains. Good leadership on new Agile teams includes mentoring them on Agile principles and practices, guiding them on collaborating effectively with customers, helping them secure senior-management buy-in, and gradually passing on these roles and responsibilities to the team members. Leadership on new teams is usually taken up by Agile coaches (Scrum Masters, XP coaches, ex-Project Managers that have successfully acquired an Agile mindset). On more mature teams, the role of leadership focuses more on ensuring the team continues to be self-organizing. This involves ensuring one or more individuals on the team are able to play the informal self-organizing roles [2] and the team is able to effectively perform the balancing acts [5] when faced with critical environmental factors such as varying levels of customer involvement [3] and senior management support [4].

Another common risk is that Agile teams may perceive self-organization as a binary state of being when in fact it is a continuum [1]. In other words, teams can be at different levels of self-organization and can move up or down that scale at different stages. Once teams perceive a certain level of understanding and expertise in Agile practices, they risk becoming complacent and thereby losing their self-organizing ability. The trick is to constantly self-evaluate and self-improve by not just improving their productivity but also improving their ways of working. In order to achieve continuous improvement, teams should include explicit time for learning in their otherwise action-packed iterations.

Q. What advice would you give to management in organisations that are trying to establish a culture of self-organising teams?

  • Management plays a critical role in the establishment and nurturing of self-organizing teams [1, 5]. My advice to management would be the following:
  • Management should try to learn about Agile principles, values, and practices. This will help them understand how self-organizing teams are meant to function and what is expected of them in supporting such teams. Once they understand their role, they will be able to better manage the factors that influence self-organizing teams, such as a positive organizational culture, financial sponsorship, flexible contract options, team-based reward systems, and effective customer engagement.
  • Management should provide freedom to their teams and expect them to take on responsibility. By balancing freedom and responsibility, Agile teams are able to achieve and sustain autonomy - a key component on self-organization. For example, management should help guide their teams with an overall vision for a project but not enforce the details of implementation on the team. They should trust the team to find the most optimal solution in the given project scenario. Trusting the team will in turn invoke ownership on part of the team and foster innovation.
  • Management should allow the teams some room for learning from mistakes. Transitioning from being a software development team to becoming a self-organizing Agile team is not trivial.
  • Management should be prepared to find their teams making mistakes as they learn Agile practices. Allowing some space of initial learning and on-going experimentation is important for self-organizing teams to grow and continuously improve.
  • Management must realize that several decisions they make may involve selecting between short-term gains and long-term investment and they should try and choose the latter whenever possible. For example, maintaining a consistent team velocity is a short-term gain, however, in order to allow the team to up-skill themselves in latest technologies, management should be ready accept lower team velocities temporarily while teams invest in up-skilling themselves.

How effectively are your teams self-organizing?


[1] Rashina Hoda. Self-Organizing Agile Teams: A Grounded Theory. PhD Thesis ,Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, 2011. URL:
[2] Rashina Hoda, James Noble, Stuart Marshall. Organizing Self-Organizing Teams. Proceedings of the IEEE/ACM International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE2010), Cape Town, South Africa, May 2010.
[3] Rashina Hoda, James Noble, Stuart Marshall. The Impact of Inadequate Customer Involvement on Self-Organizing Agile Teams. Journal of Information Science and Technology (IST) Special section on Best Papers from XP2010, 2011.
[4] Rashina Hoda, James Noble, Stuart Marshall. Supporting Self-Organizing Agile Teams: What’s Senior Management Got To Do With It? Proceedings of the International Conference on Agile Software Development (XP2011), Madrid, Spain, May 2011
[5] Rashina Hoda, James Noble, Stuart Marshall. Balancing Acts: Walking the Agile Tightrope. Cooperative and Human Aspects of Software Engineering (CHASE) workshop at the IEEE/ACM International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE2010), South Africa, May 2010
[6] Helen Sharp, Hugh Robinson, J Segal. The Role of Story Cards and the Wall in XP teams: A distributed cognition perspective. In Agile2006, USA, 2006.
[7] Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka. The New New Product Development Games, Harvard Business Review, 1986.

About Rashina Hoda:

Dr. Rashina Hoda is a post-doctoral Researcher and Lecturer in the School of Engineering and Computer Science at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Rashina's PhD research focused on self-organizing Agile teams and resulted in a number of publications at different venues such as the Empirical Software Engineering Journal, the Information and Software Technology Journal, ICSE2010, OOPSLA2010, XP2009-10-11, and EuroPLoP etc. Rashina can be contacted at For more information on her research and links to her publications, see: or

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