Agile Self-Organizing Teams

This content is syndicated from Brad Appleton's ACME Blog by Brad Appleton. To view the original post in full, click here.

The previous blog-entry on self-organization was lots of jargon and technical mumbo jumbo that didn't say too much about what that means for teams of people. So let's shift from talking about self-organizing systems in complexity science to talking about how it applies to self-organizing teams in an agile context.

A self-organizing team is a team that is led and organized by it's members, to attain goals and objectives specified by management within the constraints of its environment:
  • Management can shape and "nudge" the team and its members, but management doesn't try to dictate the details of "what" the solution is nor the process of how to create it.
  • The team is responsible for not only leading and organizing itself to achieve its goals, but also to monitor and adapt its behavior to correct/improve its own performance.
  • This means the team can change how it leads and organizes itself in order to respond to feedback and constraints from its environment, which also implies that ...
  • There is no single central "leader" for the team over the lifetime of the team/project - the "leader" is not a static assignment, but rather a dynamic role
  • So the person(s) leading any given moment may change, depending on the particular decision, activity, or problem being addressed in any particular context/situation.

By themselves, self-organizing teams are neither "good" nor "bad." They simply "are." They require a supporting management environment (the "fitness landscape") and organizational culture that establishes, communicates, rewards and reinforces the "right" set of values and principles. Without supportive management and the proper leadership culture, there is a very high likelihood that a self-organizing team may be unable to create good results or effective processes (or both). In fact, it's not uncommon for a newly formed & "empowered" self-organizing team to fall into many of the same dysfunctional patterns of behavior that it was most trying to escape from within the "management" that only recently "empowered" the team.

An "agile team" is (supposed to be) a self-organizing team that is guided by the agile values and agile principles (given by the agile manifesto) and is supported by a trusting and empowering style of management. With management supporting their agile values/principles, Agile teams "self-organize" to collectively decide and do what is needed in order to: make and meet commitments, develop a quality product, respond to feedback, and adapt to changes.

So an Agile Self-Organizing Team is:
  • Autonomous: There is no single central decision-making authority. Control is distributed collectively to the team.

  • Adaptive: The team dynamically adjusts as needed across roles, functional specialties, and other boundaries, in order to solve their own problems and improve their own performance.

  • Accountable: The team collectively shares responsibility for results, and members hold each other accountable for outcomes.
Here are some choice quotes regarding self-organizing teams ...

“The team makes most decisions, while every member could step in and become leader in specific areas and situations. People are highly capable, committed and self-driven.”
—Andriy Solovey, What is the best leadership style for the software team?

“This causes a shift in the roles of managers from planning, controlling, directing, and managing to new roles like building trust, facilitating and supporting team decisions, expanding team capabilities, anticipating and influencing change.”
—Diana Larsen, Exploring Self-Organizing Software Development Teams

"Responsibility-Based Planning and Control: Respecting people means that teams are given general plans and reasonable goals and are trusted to self-organize to meet the goals. Respect means that instead of telling people what to do and how to do it, you develop a reflexive organization where people use their heads and figure this out for themselves."
—Mary Poppendieck, Implementing Lean Software Development

In Learning is the Bottleneck, Amr Elssamadisy & Deborah Hartmann write:
"Human psychology aspect adds that self-organized teams:
  • are more responsible for end results, self-disciplined and self-driven
  • avoid dependency on the formal leader qualities
  • motivated, initiative and willing to act
  • enjoy work more
  • better insured against groupthink, conformity and diffusion of responsibility
  • not shifting judgment and decisions to others, better in finding alternative and balancing options
  • every member is in charge, ready to step in as a leader and have incentive to develop leadership skills
A self-organized team is possible when people carry shared purpose, principles and values. They support and respect each other. And they want to succeed. The [Agile] team works together to respond to changes that happen together. They collectively do what needs to be done to build the software."

In his 2001 paper Agile Processes and Self-Organization Ken Schwaber wrote:
"Agile processes employ self-organizing teams to handle the complexity inherent in systems development projects. A team of individuals is formed. They organize themselves into a team in response to the pressure of a deadline, reminding me of the saying, "Nothing focuses the mind like a noose!" The pressure cooker of the deadline produces cooperation and creativity that otherwise is rare. This may seem inhumane, but compared with non-agile practices for dealing with complexity, self-organization is a breath of fresh air."

This is what Kevin Kelly wrote about that problem in his book Out of Control:
"When everything is connected to everything in a distributed network, everything happens at once. When everything happens at once, wide and fast moving problems simply route around any central authority. Therefore overall governance must arise from the most humble interdependent acts done locally in parallel, and not from a central command."

Roger Lewin wrote in Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos:
"Complexity science implies that CEOs and managers must give up control -- or rather, the illusion of control -- when they are trying to lead their organization to some goal. But they do need to create the environment in which creativity can emerge. The message of complexity science is not simply to stand back and wait for the right solutions to emerge. Too little control is just as misguided a business strategy as too much. Some structure is necessary. The degree and nature of control that CEOs establish in their companies strongly influences what emerges, in terms of culture, creativity, and adaptability."

Mishkin Berteig writes in Team Self-Organization:
"In agile teams, this concept of self-organization is taken quite far. Team members collaborate to get work done. No one orders a team or an individual to do specific work. The team members volunteer for work that they see needs doing, even if it is not something that is in their area of expertise. An agile team is constantly promoting learning in its people. Agile teams are also cross-functional so that the team can get work done without relying on external services. The team therefore represents a complete work unit capable of taking a function valuable to customers from start to finish, from idea to deployment."

In Why Agile Principles are Important, Simon Baker writes:
An experienced agile software development team is a highly social group that is self-organising around these principles and acts with coordination and collective behaviour. This collective behaviour comprises:

  • Collective mind where individual team members develop shared understandings of the team's tasks and of one another, and come to understand how their work contributes to the work of the team thereby facilitating team performance.

  • Swarm intelligence which gives a team the ability to adapt to changes, and robustness which enables them to still perform and deliver even when one or more members fail.

From Of ants and men: self-organized teams in human and insect organizations
To cope with today’s complex, fast-paced, and ever-changing business environment, companies need to shift their overall structure to produce adaptive, highly responsive organizations. The use of teams, particularly self-organized teams with their reactive, emergent properties, may be one way of achieving this goal.

In other words, insect societies often harness the power of self-organization such that with the appropriate set of feedbacks, interindividual interactions, and proximate mechanisms, group-level adaptive behavior simply emerges. No one directs the foragers where to find food, the network of trails and interactions takes care of that; individuals are not allocated to tasks, the reverse is true: the tasks allocate the workers.

McMillan-Parsons (1999) found that the teams fitted Stacey’s (1996) description of self-organizing groups or teams as ones that arise spontaneously around specific issues, communicate and cooperate about these issues, reach a consensus, and make a committed response to these issues. Further, ‘research suggested that self organizing teams have a strong sense of shared purpose, strong personal commitment, display creative and spontaneous behaviors, have high levels of energy and enthusiasm, and that an inherent order emerges from their activities’.

Importantly, in self-organizing teams the members self select and there is no-one checking to see if they have the necessary range of attributes. In her study, McMillan (1999) discovered that members of the self-organizing teams studied learned new skills and developed new attributes to meet the needs of the team.

One characteristic of such organizations is adhocracy. These large, mature yet high-performing companies manage to generate the flexible and adaptive properties of smaller entrepreneurial organizations—in short, to “be big and yet to act small at the same time”. Using teams is one key means of achieving that, for, as Flory (2002, p. 9) remarks, self-managed teams, ‘are fast moving, fast learning groups, flexible, highly autonomous and have a well-developed pro-active attitude and sense of responsibility. These characteristics are the very reason they are brought into life as answers for organizations to respond to a fast moving world.’


Self-managed Teams Self-organized Teams
Part of formal organization structure Not part of formal organization structure
Formal, temporary, or permanent Informal and temporary
Not spontaneously formed Formed spontaneously around issue(s)
Indirectly controlled by senior management Boundaries influenced by senior management
Managers decide ‘who’ and ‘what’ Team members decide ‘who’ and ‘what’
Replace the hierarchy Often in conflict with or constrained by the hierarchy
Empowered by senior management Empowered by the team’s members
Strongly shared culture Cultural differences provoke and constrain
Some sense of shared purpose Strong sense of shared purpose
Order created via recognized processes Inherent order emerges
Behaviors influenced by procedures and roles Spontaneous, creative behaviors
Strong sense of team commitment Strong sense of personal commitment
Some energy and enthusiasm High levels of energy and enthusiasm
Decision making is mainly a planned process Decision making is mainly a spontaneous process
At least one member’s primary role is organizational All members’ primary role relate to the task


In my next blog-entry I'll give links to several other resources on Self-Organizing Teams.

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