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Establishing Self-Organized Agile Teams

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Agile suggest teams to self-organize their work. The questions arise what self-organization is and what organization can do to make it possible for teams to become self-organizing?

Mike Cottmeyer wrote the blog post some thoughts on self-organization in agile teams in which he talks about misconceptions of self-organization. Self-organization doesn’t mean that there are no managers, that teams don’t have constraints or that teams can decide about everything themselves says Cottmeyer. But it is up to the self-organized team to decide how they will do things:

Self-organization DOES mean that once the team is formed, and given a problem to solve, and a set of constraints to operate within, the team gets to decide how the work is done.

In the blog post self-organized teams: where great things start Alex Lichtenberger shared his view on self-organization:

Self-organized teams decide on their own what the best way/process is to achieve their goals. Nobody assigns them work from outside (no command-control from outside), they figure it out by themselves what work needs to be done to achieve the overall goal.

To be able to decide how they will do their work as a self-organized team, teams also need to reflect on their way of working and improve it where needed:

Self-organized teams stick to the initial process and after a defined period of time the process is reviewed (Inspect). What went well and what didn’t? What are the improvements? The team is the expert to answer these questions and based on that, the process will be adapted. These steps are done over and over again and build the base for continuous improvement and appropriate reaction of outside changes.

Galina Kostetskaya described in the blog post what I have to say about self-organizing teams what it is like when teams are self-organized:

  • a self-organizing team does not need directional control and supervision. No one should "assign" tasks and checking their progress (…)
  • a self-organizing team wants to know and knows everything about the project and product, understands the requirements, is not afraid to ask questions or suggest something.
  • a self-organizing team has the feeling of ownership and commitment. They are proud of the work they do. a self-organizing team takes responsibility (…)
  • a self-organizing team can be given a goal and watched how they progress towards it. You only need to help them when necessary (…)
  • a self-organizing team sets it’s own rules inside some bordered space and ensures everyone follows them.
  • a self-organizing team evolves, adapts and can solve a broad range of tasks, using all the areas of expertise of it’s members (…)
  • a self-organizing team monitors and manages it’s progress.

What can you do to make it possible for teams to become self-organizing? Sigi Kaltenecker and Peter Hundermark published a series of articles based on their upcoming InfoQ mini-book on self-organizing teams. In their opening article what are self organising teams they explained that self-organization needs to be supported and nurtured to make it work:

(…) 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.

Coaching can help teams to become self organizing as Lichtenberger explains:

Self-organized teams require coaching from outside, especially at the beginning of their path, but they do not require it in a traditional command & control style. Therefore the coach rather should apply a servant leadership style.

Since Scrum promotes self-organization, practicing Scrum can be a suitable way to establish self-organizing teams:

Coaching of the team is ensured through the Scrum Master role. Continual process inspection and adaption by the self-organized team happens through various meetings such as the daily scrum, the backlog grooming or the retrospect sprint meeting.

Kostetskaya provides the following suggestions to establish self-organized teams in organizations:

  • give them a compelling mission.
  • clear boundaries in terms of information flow, alignment with other organizational units, resources.
  • give the authority to self-manage within these boundaries
  • provide stability for some period of time

Leo Widrich wrote about Buffer’s switch to working without managers. Inspired by the book reinventing organizations by Frederic Laloux Buffer decided to establish self-managed and self-organized teams:

There’re no managers or bosses and everyone on the team is encouraged to work freely on projects they are most compelled to work on, that they feel they have expertise and skill and that they feel Buffer needs at this point.

For self-organization you want to minimize on processes as Widrich explained in his post. They defined four ground rules for making self-management work:

  1. How decisions get made: They have an advice process to ensure that they will work on important things for their customers.
  2. How we give feedback and help each other improve: They haven’t settled on a process yet, their key challenge is to find out how transparent the process should be.
  3. How much we get compensated for our work: Since there is no manager or HR department Buffer is discovering new ways of determining how someone gets paid.
  4. What is our purpose: Based on the reinventing organizations book their approach is to observe what they are doing and to name that to establish their purpose.

How did you establish self-organized teams?

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