Team self-organization is a powerful force that can foster innovation and motivate team members to do great things. The idea is simple: let the people closest to the customer, those with the greatest insight into customer needs, make the decisions about what they deliver and how they deliver it.  Yet many organizations struggle with putting self-organization into practice, drifting into chaos caused by lack of direction, ambiguous empowerment, and authority without accountability.

What is often lacking is effective leadership. It is ironic that a self-organizing team needs outside help to truly be effective, but this is why organizations often get self-organization wrong: they think that all they need to do is free a team from constraints and let them go. The reality is that we all thrive under constraints, provided they are the right constraints. Just as unlimited budget leads to waste and excess, total freedom leads to anarchy and discord. Teams need help to self-organize, and constraints in the right places, and that’s where agile leadership plays an essential role.

Self-organizing teams need help getting started

Team members coming from traditional organizations often can’t imagine what real self-organization feels like. They lack good role models, and without them they can become confused and frustrated. Agile leaders may not have all the answers, but they can bring in help from other parts of the organization or from outside, to help the team understand how they will need to grow to take on the greater responsibility and self-discipline that self-organization demands.  Agile leaders can also provide the impetus for change, helping a team to create a powerful, inspiring vision of what they could become, and then helping them to realize that vision.

Self-organizing teams need permission to change, and protection

In organizations that have strongly-established hierarchies, self-organization may be threatening to those people who cling to the old way of working. Team members may fear, legitimately, reprisals when they step outside boundaries about which they were unaware. Agile leaders protect their teams from these pressures and give them the space in which to learn and grow.

Self-organizing teams need structure

Self-organization doesn’t mean anarchy. With respect to the outside world, teams need to understand what decisions they can make, and which decisions are still off limits. Within the team itself, they also need to agree on how they will make decisions, and how they will resolve disagreements. Lacking these, they will continually blunder into conflicts with other parts of the organization caused by lack of clarity over who can do what. Within the team, without the structure provided by working agreements, conflicts can fester below the surface only to express themselves in other dysfunctional ways. Agile leaders help teams to understand what they can and can’t decide, and also help them to build a healthy way to make decisions and express disagreements that improves, rather than degrades, their ability to deliver value.

Self-organizing teams need the right culture and values

The Scrum Values (Commitment, Focus, Openness, Respect, and Courage) are important because they express attributes of the kind of culture that is essential for self-organization.[1] The values must express themselves in everything the team does, in how team members work together. This can be a long journey for a team – it takes time to lay the foundation of the trust on which these values build.  Saying the words is easy, understanding the values takes time, and truly embodying the values even longer. Agile leaders plant the value-seeds, and then nurture their growth by embodying the values, demonstrating and upholding them, every day.

Self-organizing teams need discipline

Behind the values lies something deeper: the personal discipline to continuously improve one’s skills, and the team discipline to hold each other accountable for upholding the team’s values, and to challenge each other to continually improve. This discipline itself grows over time, as the team becomes more mature, more capable, and more self-aware. Agile leaders help teams to develop their discipline by helping them to reflect upon their performance and to understand what they need to take greater responsibility for improving their capabilities.

Self-organizing teams need continual support and encouragement

Teams do not become self-organizing overnight, buffeted by changes within the organization, and even within the team itself, their progress can stall, and even slip backward. Agile leaders help their teams through these rough spots by helping them to reflect on where they are falling short and where they can improve, by helping to protect them from outside forces.

Conclusion

Self-organization is an essential quality of a healthy high-performing team, but self-organization isn’t easy to achieve and happens neither by accident nor by simple decree or assertion. Effective Agile leaders establish the conditions under which self-organization takes root, grows, and thrives. Agile leaders also help team members to grow in their ability to self-organize, and to be effective team members. They also help to foster the values and the team and organizational culture in which self-organization can help a team to continually improve the quality of both what they deliver and how they work.

Where to learn more

Scrum.org’s Professional Agile Leadership – Essentials course is targeted at agile leaders who want to improve their ability to support their Agile teams on a journey toward self-organization. To learn more, and to find a course near you, see https://www.scrum.org/courses/professional-agile-leadership-essentials-training.

[1] https://www.scrum.org/resources/scrum-values-poster

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Kurt Bittner

Kurt Bittner is Vice President of Enterprise Solutions at Scrum.org and a leading expert on Agile and iterative software development approaches. A former Forrester analyst covering Agile and DevOps, and an accomplished public speaker, Kurt has spoken at many conferences and is the author of three books: "The Economics of Iterative Software Development", "Use Case Modeling" and "Managing Iterative Software Development Projetcs."

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