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Why do you Need Self Organizing Teams in an Agile Environment?


In one of his project management books, the 7 Habits of Effective People, Stephen Covey says, “You cannot hold people responsible for results if you supervise their methods. You then become responsible for results and rules replace human judgment, creativity, responsibility.”

As a manager, you want to set your team for success by creating an environment that empowers them to make the right decisions and choose how things need to get done. You become a source of help when they want it and stay out of the way until then.

In fact, one of the principles of the Agile Manifesto clearly states that “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.”

What is a self-organizing team?

Unlike traditional development teams, self-organizing teams do not wait for managers to assign any work to them. Instead, they identify all the work that needs to be done, prioritize tasks that are required, and manage the timelines on their own. Scrum masters are also consistently looking for the most productive and efficient ways to work since they have a high sense of responsibility and ownership.

At the same time, they also effectively communicate with other members to identify tasks that have been picked up by others already and the ones that are remaining. Every member of a self-organizing team sees the list of pending tasks as what is remaining for the entire team and not just for the individual.

While self-organizing teams don’t have a manager overlooking everything, there is usually a mentor to help guide everyone. The biggest advantage with self-organizing teams is that instead of a manager pushings tasks, team members get to decide what tasks they want to work on.

Challenges faced by the self-organizing teams

Unlike traditional teams, self-organized teams are not directed and controlled by the manager; team members actively participate in all the Scrum methodology practices and events and have a level of autonomy. This can rise to a lot of challenges during both initial adoptions and in sustaining the team.

1. Team inertia

The teams are very enthusiastic about the agile transformation in the beginning but when challenges surface, it’s a common tendency to fall back to old ways of working.

Scrum ceremonies places low importance on the top-down management style and the project manager’s role is reduced to that of a servant-leader. The top management may not be as open to such a big shift of a team having a greater degree of autonomy.

2. Different personality traits

Every product development team is a melting pot of people of different kinds. There are loners, who are happy with the clacking sound of keywords and go on without social interaction of any kind. Extroverts, on the other hand, thrive on interactions.

In a traditional development team, the product owner is responsible for managing these differences. This is not possible in a self-organized team. The team is supposed to work together and manage their own work. While a little diversity is good, a software development team of incompatible people can guarantee project failure.

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3. Ineffective communication

The very idea of self-organizing teams depends on effective project communication. If there aren’t proper communication channels, then the whole idea collapses. This is particularly important for geographically-dispersed teams.

4. Absence of individual accountability

One of the most common arguments against self-organizing teams is the perceived drop in efficiency and a lack of individual accountability. Since all members of the team participate in time-consuming meetings, individual productivity can be affected.

But, self-organizing teams work as a single unit. The whole team becomes accountable and therefore, there is no way you can have one particular person accountable for any tasks or mistakes. This is a serious problem for those stakeholders who are responsible for the success of the project.

Key characteristics of a self-organized team

The Agile Manifesto does not have a clear definition of a self-organizing team in the original document. However, over the years, agile methodology and scrum methodology experts have defined some of the important characteristics of a self-organizing team are:

1. Teamwork and collaboration

When there is no manager to bring the team together and push orders, it is up to the members to communicate effectively and work with each other. As a result, self-organizing teams need to be highly collaborative and work as a close unit.

2. Competency

Since there is no manager to give team members clear direction and instructions at every step of the process, members need to have confidence in their own project management skills and the skills of their colleagues to successfully accomplish tasks.

3. Continuous improvement and growth:

As part of a self-organizing team, members need to constantly seek opportunities growth and look for all the different ways that they can improve their skills to increase the overall productivity levels.

4. Respect and trust in the team

Team members need to have trust in the skills of their co-workers and believe that everyone can get the work done even when there is no manager to hold them accountable. They should also respect each others’ opinions and find a way to work together even if they have opposing views.

5. Ownership

All the members of a self-organizing team should have a strong sense of ownership and commitment towards their work. With no one to point out their mistakes, members need to learn from their mistakes themselves and apply the lessons they learn to achieve effective results.


Benefits of having a self-organizing team

In agile environments, self-organizing teams can prove to be more beneficial when implemented the right way as decisions that affect the team are made by the entire team, and not just by one single person.

Here are some of the benefits of a team that organizes itself:

1. Better agility and speed of delivery

Self-organizing teams quickly decide on the tasks they need to work on and how they can meet the corresponding deadlines which directly leads to better speed of delivery. Since the high performing teams are agile, they are also able to respond to market fluctuations quickly. With no manager, teams can quickly shift gears without waiting for permission from higher-ups.

2. Increased focus on quality

Instead of just performing tasks that the manager asks them to do, the self-organizing team needs to stay organized at work and focus more on customer expectations. By taking customer feedback seriously, they are able to build quality products that closely align with the needs of the markets and the customers.

3. Less time spent on team management

A self-organizing agile team is completely responsible for assigning and tracking their own work and progress. As a result, you don’t need to spend extra resources to hire a manager just to assign and delegate tasks, manage deadlines, check employee statuses, and fill out timesheets.

4. Improved employee satisfaction

When employees are able to pick out their own tasks, set their own schedules, and decide on project timelines, they are more satisfied in the workplace with a high level of motivation. Reduced micromanagement in self-organizing teams, also gives each employee the freedom to work in their own way which in turn improves performance and accountability

How to Build a self-organized team in an agile environment

Most organizations find self-organizing teams too good to be true. There will always be people who are lazy and need to be told exactly what they need to do. After all, can team members really work productively and collaborate seamlessly without any manager overlooking their tasks?

The answer to that is, yes.

The first step towards creating a successful self-organizing team is,

  • to pick out the right members who can actually work proactively without a manager constantly looking over their shoulders.
  • a cross-functional team where members have all the necessary skills to implement the required tasks, which may even lead to a larger team size than desired initially.

Though, over time, as team members learn from each other and develop a broader spectrum of skills, you can decrease the team size by moving some individuals to other teams. At the same time, you should also try and balance skill levels within the team.

Before establishing a self-organizing team, all the members should go through the following phases:

1. Training

Team members need to be trained in order to properly understand the principles of a self-organizing team. They need hard skills training to ensure a better understanding of the necessary framework, and soft skills training to better collaborate and communicate with the other members of the team.

2. Coaching

Initially, groups should start off as a self-organizing team with a coach present to guide them through every step. The responsibility of the coach is to help team members work and communicate together in a seamless way. As team members learn how to collaborate with each other and take ownership of their work, the role of the coach gets diminished over time.

3. Mentoring

As the members start organizing themselves, they still need some mentoring in order to grow their skills and maintain a balance in the team. The main goal of mentoring is to help the entire team stay motivated and grow together.

Self-organized teams are crucial for agile projects

The ability of teams to self-organize around project goals has now become crucial to all agile methodologies. By using the collective wisdom of the entire team, members are able to optimally organize work in a way that a single manager just can’t.

While it can take time for teams to understand and implement the concepts of self-organization, but with the right project management software in addition to training, mentoring, and guidance it is definitely possible for self-organizing teams to perform well in an agile environment and deliver quality products as quickly as possible.