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Are self-organizing agile teams realistic?

Yvette Francino Agile Consultant

Self-organizing teams are touted in agile circles, but they seem to operate much more smoothly in theory than in reality.

Can you really expect team members with no training, aptitude, and often, frankly, no interest in collaboration skills to suddenly come together and operate smoothly? Isn't it the role of management and HR to help resolve issues such as messy conflicts or to deal with the slackers on the team?

Here are some of the common issues and misperceptions about self-organizing teams, and how to deal with them.

What it means to be a self-organizing team

Like most concepts that are recommended in agile, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to how a self-organizing team operates. In fact, one of the characteristics of a self-organizing team is that the team decides how it operates.  

In general, a self-organizing team is one in which the team is given more autonomy, rather than being told exactly what to do and how to do it. More decisions, particularly those that affect the team, are made by the team, rather than by a boss.

This can cause a lot of confusion, because there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules about how a group of people makes a decision. Some people are bigger risk-takers than others. Some people are more outspoken and opinionated than others. Some people have more passion or the knowledge needed to make a particular decision.

The role of managers and leaders

Managers and leaders are often confused about their own role in an environment with self-organizing teams. They can feel as though their role is no longer necessary.

But the collaborative leader, in fact, is more necessary than ever in fostering an environment that helps self-organizing teams become high-performing teams that continually improve.

Collaborative leaders create an environment of psychological safety for their teams by encouraging them to make more decisions for the work for which they're responsible. These leaders gently help knowledge workers step out of their comfort zone, helping them to grow in the skills necessary for self-organizing teams to thrive.

When mistakes are made, the leader views the mistake as a lesson that will help provide insights into growth and improvement.

Managers and leaders are typically trained and experienced with handling many of the people skills that may be uncomfortable for those who are not in leadership positions, such as decision making, accountability, or conflict resolution.

Rather than handling all the issues that involve these skills, the leader acts more as a coach to help the team gain these skills, yet still can act as an escalation point when necessary.  

Decision making: Let the teams make the call

With self-organizing teams, more decisions are made by the team than in a traditional organization in which a manager assigns work. However, this change in decision making authority can be uncomfortable for both the leaders and the knowledge workers.

Leaders still are important decision makers; however, they typically focus on more strategic decisions, including defining which key outcomes they would like to achieve for their customers and business. The more tactical decisions about how the work will be performed is pushed down to the knowledge workers who will be performing it.

The team members may come up with multiple solutions of how they might achieve the outcomes put forth by management. By understanding the outcomes and putting measurements in place to see if they are moving towards those, the team can pivot when necessary to a new solution if team members find their initial solution is not working.  

In Jurgen Appelo’s book Management 3.0, he describes decision making using seven levels of authority. These levels range from "tell" (manager makes 100% of the decision) to "delegate" (manager makes 0% of the decision).  

Recognizing that there is a scale—in which decisions can be made collaboratively with more decision making power going toward the teams as they gain necessary skills—that will help teams and managers ease into an approach that will work for them.

[ Also see: Forget about agile: Keep the focus on quality ]

Teams must hold themselves accountable

Accountability is another area that can be confusing for self-organizing teams and managers. In traditional environments, you typically have individual accountability, rather than group accountability.

Managers are expected to hold staff members accountable to meeting deliverables, and if the deliverables do not meet expectations, the manager is expected to take action, such as giving the employee a poor performance review or putting the employee on a performance improvement plan.

Employees live in fear, dreading bad reviews. This can be especially harmful in organizations that "stack rank" their employees, often giving the weakest link the dreaded message that he or she is fired. This kind of fear leads to competitive behavior, finger-pointing, and a lack of trust between team members.

Alternatively, an organization that fosters group accountability and teamwork provides the framework for team members to thrive by helping one another. The team as a whole works to recognize and capitalize on the strengths of the different members so that, together, they will be successful.

By having diverse skill sets and personality traits on the team, the group can best optimize the responsibilities of the team.

When things don't go well

This all sounds good in theory, but what happens when the team doesn't deliver as expected? The team needs to agree on how the members will hold themselves accountable. In order to build trust, team members need be fully transparent and let their leader know of any challenges they're encountering without fear of retribution.

For example, the team's members may agree that they will alert their leadership as early as possible if they're at risk of not meeting agreed-upon commitments. They may have a process that states that a mitigation plan will be put in place or there will be some root-cause analysis done, and an improvement made to prevent the problem from occurring in the future.

It's the leader’s responsibility to ensure that the team is learning and growing and working together as a team to hold one another accountable. The leader helps the team members recognize their value and how they can learn from their mistakes rather than fear retribution.

This requires honest and constructive feedback from a leader in a timely way. The team will learn that the leader and all team members have a vested interest in everyone succeeding.

Conflict resolution: Let teams work it out

Perhaps the hardest skill for self-organizing teams is conflict resolution. There are models and frameworks that can help in identifying personality styles or help two people in conflict have a needed conversation. 

However, it's all too common for team members to view the manager as having the role tasked with handling whatever conflicts they may be having with their fellow team members. They expect the manager to handle the issue and keep their own identity secret so that no one will know who complained about the issue.

If the manager of a self-organizing team finds himself in this position, he should use the opportunity to help the team handle conflict more directly. Rather than acting as a middleman, the manager may help the employee with the complaint learn how to diplomatically and constructively work to resolve the issue.

[ Steven A. Lowe: Project management: A surefire way to kill your software product ]

Work toward continual improvement

An organization that's trying out self-organizing teams will undoubtedly initially struggle as it experiments with what works best in its culture and with its unique set of personalities.

One tool that many coaches use to help teams get started is to a working agreement that defines how they will operate. These should be transparent and shared with the leaders and other teams.

At the team's retrospective meetings, the team should review and refine these working agreements. When they run into issues, they should discuss and update their working agreements. In this way, they will work to continually improve with the guidance and support from their management and leadership team.

Is it realistic to expect self-organizing teams to work? Absolutely! But success will depend on strong coaching skills from leaders and managers to help the teams gain the necessary skills to become a collaborative, high-performing team.

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