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What Are Self-Organizing Teams?

Agile is very much built around the idea of self-organizing teams. But what are self-organizing teams? There is some confusion about that topic. Some teams have taken that to mean complete flexibility to do whatever they want without any management or leadership. That amounts to “anarchy” and there is a big difference between “anarchy” and “self-organizing teams”.

What Are Self-organizing Teams?

What’s the Difference Between Anarchy and Self-Organizing Teams?

A self-organizing team does not mean that the team has the ability to do anything that they want without limits. It’s important to understand the difference between “anarchy” and “self-organizing teams”.

What Is “Anarchy”?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “Anarchy” as:

a state of lawlessness or political disorder due to the absence of governmental authority

a utopian society of individuals who enjoy complete freedom without government

absence or denial of any authority or established order

What Does Self-organization Really Mean?

Wikipedia defines “self-organization” as follows:

Self-organization is a process where some form of global order or coordination arises out of the local interactions between the components of an initially disordered system. This process is spontaneous: it is not directed or controlled by any agent or subsystem inside or outside of the system; however, the laws followed by the process and its initial conditions may have been chosen or caused by an agent.”

However, that doesn’t mean that self-organizing teams are given a blank check to do whatever they want to do without any higher-level direction and it also doesn’t mean that self-organizing teams should not be held accountable for their actions. The team needs to earn the right to be self-organizing by proving that they are responsible about making and keeping commitments – that’s an essential part of self-organization and one of the key things that distinguishes self-organization from “anarchy”. It would be irresponsible for any manager to rely on a team to be self-organizing if the team doesn’t hold themselves accountable for meeting commitments.

Why Are Self-organizing Teams Important in Agile?

Reliance on self-organizing teams is a very powerful and very important concept in Agile and, if it is done correctly, it can have a huge impact on the whole company. As an example, Valpak, is one of the successful case studies in my latest book and one of the significant differences Agile has made on their organization is due to self-organizing teams:

  • Prior to Agile, the company had to do a fair amount of management (as most companies do) to resolve individual and team performance issues
  • After Agile, those issues almost totally went away because the teams became self-organizing. If there was someone with a performance issue on the team, the team did not tolerate it and resolved it themselves.

The successful implementation of Agile at Valpak allowed their senior management team to focus on higher-level strategic issues much more than they had ever been able to do before because they were freed from managing so many day-to-day issues.

What Are the Attributes of a Good Self-organizing Team?

What are the attributes of a good, self-organizing team?

  • They understand and take responsibility for fulfilling the higher-level business direction of the company that they work for but no one has to micro-manage them to get it done.
  • No one needs to pressure them into making commitments – they make commitments eagerly, voluntarily, and responsibly.
  • They’re very clear and unambiguous about the commitments that they make
  • They take commitments seriously and have the integrity and self-discipline to take accountability for their actions and follow-through to make sure that any commitments they make are consistently met

Overall Summary

Developing a highly effective, self-organizing team is not an easy thing to do and it can take time but its a very powerful component of Agile. There is also typically a balance between letting self-organization go too far and becoming an end in itself or turning into anarchy. Most companies do not exist totally for the benefit of the workers (that’s what socialism is and we all know how successful that is) so overall business direction and leadership is still important. What is needed; however, is visionary leadership, not micro-management.

Related Articles

Check out the following related articles on “Agile Teams”:

Additional Resources

Resources for Agile Project Management Online Training.

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