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Experimenting with Self-Organisation

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Self-organising teams are much more effective, engaged and happier, claimed Caroline Kirkhope. Not everyone is comfortable with self-organising; people are conditioned to do what they are told and mainly to work on their own. You need modern leadership approaches like intent-based leadership, sociocracy, and holacracy, to enable self-organising teams.

Caroline Kirkhope, a software developer and tech lead, spoke about self-organisation at Lean Agile Scotland 2017. InfoQ is covering this conference with Q&As, summaries, and articles.

InfoQ interviewed Kirkhope about what she learned from experimenting with self-organisation.

InfoQ: What makes self-organisation so important?

Caroline Kirkhope: Knowledge workers are much healthier and happier at work if they feel like they have a say in what they are doing, can make their own decisions and can contribute to make whatever they are doing even better. If teams aren’t self-organising you pretty much have a team where one person is doing all the thinking and everyone else is doing what they are told. No matter how smart that decision maker or leader is, they are never going to be as smart as a whole team of motivated, engaged, thinking, proactive people. Knowing where the product is going and why means more ideas and existing constraints known by the team can be brought into the plan.

Also, self-organising teams are much more efficient; they don’t have to wait to be told to do something. If a blocker comes up they can collaborate with the rest of the team to get the issue sorted.

InfoQ: What are the things that can block self-organisation?

Kirkhope: There are lots and lots of things. Some of the main ones from my experience are:

  • Leaders telling people exactly what to do, rather than explaining what the team is trying to achieve and letting the team come up with the best course of action.

  • Fear & Blame, people being scared to make mistakes, scared to ask questions, scared to make decisions. If people are afraid they are much less likely to be innovative and proactive.

  • Lack of clear goals and purpose; if there isn’t a goal or purpose to what we are trying to achieve, or why and how this goal was created, or this isn’t clear to the team that are we expecting them to self-organise towards. How can people self-organise if they don’t know the point and purpose of what they are doing?

InfoQ: How can we deal with the blockades?

Kirkhope: Remove fear and blame from your teams. When something goes wrong, run postmortems looking at why an issue occurred and how to prevent it in future. Be explicitly blameless, make a big deal of it. If people know there won’t be repercussions they are much more likely to be fully honest and it will be quicker and easier to prevent the issue in future. Ensure people aren’t afraid to ask questions or voice opinions; I always remind teams that there are no stupid questions.

Shared ownership, in my opinion, is a massive part of having a self-organising team; you need people bought into taking personal responsibility for a shared goal and collaborating to meet that goal. Various things help, but I love mob programming and/or getting the team to focus on flow of work if a team is struggling with this.

Simple things like change in language or mindset. In one team I was leading that struggled with self-organisation, I changed my mindset to see my role as team lead to make myself redundant. So whenever the team looked at me to make a decision I would ask them lots of questions and try and help them come up with a solution rather than jumping in and solving things for them.

InfoQ: Are there situations where you wouldn't recommend self-organisation?

Kirkhope: I can’t think of any from the teams I’ve been in, but I’m sure there are. Maybe situations where there are a strict set of tried and tested protocols to follow to achieve a task. You probably don’t want a self-organising team turning nuclear reactors in power stations on and off! That said, you probably do want the team to fully understand why the protocols are there and be thinking and fully engaged and proactive whilst executing them rather than going through the motions.

InfoQ: What did you learn from experimenting with self-organisation?

Kirkhope: The main things I learned are:

  • Self-organising teams are much more effective, engaged and happier.

  • They are way more fun in my opinion to lead; I much prefer being in that coaching role encouraging and inspiring leaders at all levels and knowing that when I’m not there the team can function just as well.

But also it’s really easy to slip back into old patterns and as a leader if you suddenly start stepping in giving orders and taking control or there is any hint of blame/judgement, I find teams can pretty quickly revert back to old patterns.

Also, culture is really important; people are conditioned from school and work experiences to do what they are told and mainly to work on their own. That was certainly my experience and I see it in teams especially with new graduates. This is a massive barrier to break down in the work environment. Treating people like adults and trusting them is super important, after all we are all adults and organise our own lives already.

InfoQ: What can managers do to support self-organisation?

Kirkhope: Make sure they understand the blockers and things that work against self-organisation. Review their own habits and interactions with their teams. If they feel like teams are lacking self-organisation or not being proactive, try and understand why and what they are doing to help or hinder the team.

Understand the difference between management and leadership. I know the idea of leader leadership, intent based leadership and servant leadership, is new to a lot of managers so I would recommend reading up on the subject. I would also recommend the following books: Turn the Ship Around by David Marquet, and Coaching Agile Teams, by Lyssa Adkins.

Coaching and helping people come up with their own solutions instead of solving/trying to solve problems for them.

Setting clear goals and boundaries. Ensure the team is super clear on what the goal is and if there are boundaries or constraints to which they must work in; also make that clear to them especially when teams are new to self-organisation.

Earlier InfoQ interviewed David Marquet, author of the book Turn the Ship Around, about intent-based leadership in agile:

David Marquet: Instead of asking permission, we would say "I intend to..." This sounds like a subtle shift but it has a huge impact. In a permission based organization (which is almost all organizations) an idea or initiative will NOT happen if anyone says no. In an intent based organization, the idea or initiative WILL happen unless the boss says no. It biases the organization toward action and engages everyone in thinking.

InfoQ: How do modern leadership approaches like intent-based leadership, sociocracy, and holacracy, blend with self-organisation?

Kirkhope: They are vital; in my opinion, you need modern leadership approaches like these to enable self-organising teams. I don’t think old school command and control type leadership would ever work as it encourages people to follow what their managers tell them rather to think and act of their own accord. If you look at holacracy the roles, distributed authority and transparency, these things fit perfectly with what you need to enable teams to self-organise.

From David Marquet’s experience with intent based leadership which he writes about in Turn the Ship Around: This type of leadership shifts the ownership so the captain isn’t always the answer man. Crewman would state intent of what they were going to do, rather than asking permission. An example would be, "Captain I intend to submerge the ship", and the captain would respond with "Very Well". Rather than, "Captain permission to submerge the ship" and the captain would respond "Permission Granted". It’s a subtle change in language but proves hugely powerful.

Self-organising teams I think are also a critical component to this type of leadership; having them will enable modern types of leadership to work.

InfoQ: What’s your advice to organisations who want to increase self-organisation?

Kirkhope: My experience is definitely team based at the moment, rather than organisational, but it’s something I have been thinking more about recently. I would advise to try and look at what’s blocking your organisation from becoming self-organising at the moment, and work on removing these one by one. Definitely look at case studies from other companies; Etsy has some great articles about running blameless postmortems, for example. I think for organisations it’s also important to make the company’s goals clear so that teams within the company are all pulling in the same direction to meet the bigger organisational goals, rather than all working towards individual targets etc., which at times can conflict with other teams’.

Read up on Holacracy and different leadership approaches; I think it’s important for the organisations leaders to be united when trying to change an organisation. Buying copies of books that show and explain self-organising in practice and giving proper time to read them during work hours I think can help spread the message throughout the company. Take time to talk about them afterwards and look at running some experiments of ideas you want to try out.

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