On Being Self-Organized


Self-Organizing Teams have developed a lot of airtime in recent years, having been mentioned explicitly in the Agile Manifesto.  The problem is that there is little in the way of guidance on how these teams work and how they need to be enabled, nurtured and protected.  There is no “manual for Self-organizing teams” that explains how it works.  So team leaders and managers in many organizations decide to just jump in without guidance and try to figure it out by themselves.  I mean, how hard can it be.

The truth is that creating a great team is hard enough as any manager should already know.  But the concept of self-organizing teams doesn’t make this process any easier.  Trying to enable or participate in a “self-organizing” team can be difficult and extremely subtle in what works and what doesn’t. It can be personally confronting on many levels, and requires a level of tolerance, agility, commitment and discipline that is far away higher than most ordinary teams.

I would have thought that it was both fundamental and obvious that you cannot manage a “self-organizing team” into existence.  You can create the environment and structure, but then it is by definition up to the team members to manage themselves, with suitable guidance and support from the organization.

But often the first thing that happens is a team’s manager call a meeting and announce “congratulations, you guys are now a self-organizing team!”. The second sentence can be one of:

1) “Now, here’s what I want you to do”

2) “Now, off you go and self-organize yourselves for the next sprint”

Or similar statement.

Either of these two sentences from a manager can be dis-enabling.  The first immediately undermines the announcement of the first sentence, by continuing directive behavior.  The second sentence (unless closely followed by subtle influence and support) basically puts the onus back on the team, but without letting them know anything about what just happened. The obvious questions arise but are unanswered:

•         “what are our boundaries?”

•         “What can and can’t we decide as a team?”

•         “Who do we turn to for problems?”

•         “What resources are available to help us make this transition?”

That self-organizing teams fail to start or gel is unsurprising.  And this just creates an excuse for managers to step in and say “this isn’t working” and go back to past practice.

This book aims to provide guidance in how this works, for both managers and leaders who must still participate in this process, as well as the participants, the team members and the managers who are all now part of this team structure.  There are answers to the obvious questions, or at least ways of defining and agreeing on the answers.

Where Can I Find It?

I’ve decided to publish this book progressively on leanpub.com.  In this way I can release early on the material that is already in existence, and thereby benefit projects and teams that are in need of this information.  I can assess the level of interest for a book of this kind, and get immediate and useful feedback on the material as it is published.   I can also pivot the book if necessary.

Please visit On Being Self-Organized