Self-organizing Teams: What, Why and How Leadership Matters?

Agile principles emphasize the value of self-organizing teams:

 “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.” – Agile Principle #5

“The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams”- Agile Principle# 11

The ability of a team to self-organize is a key factor that influences the success of Agile adoption and Agile projects. Let us take a closer look at what are self-organizing teams and how leadership matters in enabling conditions for self-organizing teams to emerge and sustain.

What is a Self-Organizing team?

A self-organizing Agile team is composed of individuals who work collaboratively to achieve a shared goal by managing their own work, interchanging roles based on strengths and weaknesses, making collective decisions and organizing repeatedly to meet new challenges. Self-organizing teams must have a common focus, mutual trust, respect, courage, and transparency.

The team members of a self-organizing team:

  • have a strong sense of shared purpose and they work with a vision to achieve a common goal as a team rather than individuals
  • trust each other to share their weakness, ask for help, admit mistakes, and open to being questioned or given inputs by other team members
  • articulate disagreements, have constructive conflicts and able to converge
  • care enough to hold each other accountable for their performance
  • able to provide feedback and flag issues without the fear of being negatively judged
  • respect the diversities across the team, be it in knowledge, attitudes, skills or experience
  • are able to look beyond their job titles and venture outside their areas of functional/technical expertise
  • participate in collective decision-making

Why promote Self-organizing teams?

  • Enforces peer to peer accountability
  • Improves collaboration, commitment, and ownership
  • Increases speed and accuracy of problem-solving
  • Provides better opportunity for individual and team development

How Leadership Matters?

You cannot engineer teams to perform in a certain way. You can create conditions that increase the likelihood for the team to self-organize and perform.

Self-organizing teams require inspirational and enabling leadership to create a collaborative environment that enables the team to achieve great results. Leadership should be providing subtle direction and influence. Agile coaches and senior management play a key role in shaping the mindset and providing an environment that is conducive for self-organization to emerge and sustain.

Senior management support is imperative. They are responsible for setting direction, aligning people, obtaining resources, and motivating the teams. The role of management is extremely important in providing autonomy to the team and for team empowerment.

Senior Management’s role:

  • Ensure that the team members are interdependent on each other and are bonded by a common goal and a set of constraints
  • Ensure the team objectives are clearly defined
  • Empower the team with cross-functional skills, collective decision-making and inspire them to perform
  • Provide the right balance of challenge and support: Come up with appropriate challenges and remove blockers to self-organization
  • Hold the whole team accountable to its collective responsibility to encourage contributions focused on achieving team goals over individual goals.

Agile Coach/Scrum Master’s role:

  • Foster the behaviors that enhance the collective ability of a team to adapt, solve problems, and improve performance
  • Create a team culture where peers address concerns immediately, directly and respectfully with each other
  • Oversee the team evolve and perform, coaching appropriately when required
  • Positively reinforce behaviors and practices that increase the team’s ability to self-organize
  • Help to identify and remove impediments to self-organization
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