How to Organize Self-Organizing Teams

Jacqueline Sanders-Blackman
Jacqueline Sanders-Blackman
How to Organize Self-Organizing Teams
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“If you want your customers to love your company, the employees need to love it first.” – Simon Sinek

While the idea of self-organizing teams sounds good, there is often a lot of fear and negativity around it. In my experience, most of the people with these emotions are often in management positions. They almost immediately jump to the conclusion that their employees could never be self-organizing. The reasons vary, but the most common I hear are:

  • Their company is regulated so the work has to be closely supervised
  • They work with sensitive data and mistakes cannot be tolerated
  • Their key workers are contract employees so they have to be closely monitored
  • Without management, no one will hold them accountable

What this says to me is that their employees can’t be trusted with highly regulated and/or sensitive data and they need to be micro-managed to ensure there aren’t any mistakes. However, most records on file indicate that mistakes will be made regardless of the level of command and controls put into place by management. That said, let’s start just this conversation by stating 2 truths:

  1. Self-organizing teams are just as prone to make mistakes as top-down structured teams, not more prone.
  2. Self-managing teams aren’t less productive or less accountable than top-down teams.

If you are up against either of these, don’t blame the self-organizing concept, but start by asking management if they hired untrustworthy, lazy, and irresponsible people. For argument sake, I’ll assume, their response will be that they did NOT and that they actually hired very competent professionals. (The kind of people who will thrive in a self-organized environment.)

On the flip side, I can’t ignore that these concerns aren’t real. Many are based on real experience and tenure in the business or IT industry. However, the foundation of these fears is based on past norms, ways of working, standards for defining productivity, and rules of engagement. The self-organizing teams of agile are predicated on different rules that look something like this:

  1. It’s okay to make mistakes.
  2. Bad days are going to happen from time to time.
  3. Sometimes you are going to be less than perfect.
  4. Sometimes you have to do what’s best for the team.
  5. It is always best to be truthful.

But, simply embracing these rules isn’t enough. Moving desks next to each other, removing cubicle walls, implementing a set of periodic ceremonies, and scheduling a team building gathering also aren’t enough. All these things serve a purpose, but transitioning a team from a traditional, top-down management approach to self-organization can’t be fast-tracked or force-fed (hence the definition self-organizing).  You have to give it time so that everyone can mentally adjust to the necessary mindset.

Building a Self-Organizing Team

Even before attention is given to the team, the role of managers must first be redefined. Changing a person’s title from Project Manager, Resource Manager, or Supervisor and replacing it with Scrum Master is not going to magically make a servant leader.

A servant leader needs to be aware of the culture, the organizational framework, the people themselves, and the daily execution of operations. They must fully grasp the current state and then clearly understand the end goal – is it self-managed/directed, self-organized, and/or self-governed? How much control the teams actually have? Consider these options:

  • Are teams allowed to manage and adapt their processes and progress?
  • Are they allowed to change the configuration of their team and adjust their roles and responsibilities?
  • Are they allowed to set their own direction, goals, and schedule?
  • Do they have influence on performance evaluation, feedback, and peer reviews?

I do realize that I said ‘self-govern’ – I won’t skip over this because many of you might be asking if there really companies that allow employees to self-govern. Yes, there are… and they are awesome places to work.

Cool, I’m in! But, how?

Based on personal experience, I can tell you that the secret to success is making sure the members of the team are appropriately prepared. Recently, I helped a client restructure their existing teams to be self-organizing, while also establishing a way of working for future growth. I hope you can find some inspiration!

Learn

People need to be shown (and taught) the skills needed individually and have the capabilities to exhibit self-organizing behaviors as a group. In addition to coaching, each team member was given classroom, on-the-job, and behavioral (soft skill) training. Classes or workshops included material on cognitive distortion, emotional maturity, strategic thinking, and design/systems thinking. They also had to learn how to negotiate, disagree, debate, and come to a consensus. Everyone on the team thought of themselves as a facilitator as needed, instead of looking to one person to always be the one to take the lead. The resulting mindset was that everyone on the team had the capability and duty to take the lead in order for the team to be successful.

Mature

Teams were ranked based on maturity by way of a forming, storming, norming, and performing model. True to the model of self-governance, members actually rated themselves. Through a questionnaire, each team member determined their team-related assessment with 1 of 4 answers:

  • Stage 1 – Forming (Coordinating)
    • Working individually, then bringing things together. Working harmoniously but still very separate, perhaps even different priorities.
  • Stage 2 – Storming (Cooperation)
    • Being helpful to others as needed or when asked, but still having individual work and priorities.
  • Stage 3 – Norming (Collaborating)
    • Working jointly. Everyone has the same goal, and title or ownership of the task and work is a joint effort.
  • Stage 4 – Performing (all of the above Consistently)
    • Putting progress and output above titles. The needed skills set of the team is evolved so that all members can contribute to the goal of being a high-performing team through cross-functional capabilities.

An important key to this exercise is that the team first talks through the differences of each stage and agrees on the definition for their unique environment.

The team that I worked with took the survey at regular touch points. The results allowed them to find areas they needed to work on. It’s a way to hold up a mirror to say, “Are we really collaborating, or are we just individuals who are coordinating our work?”

Work Together

During the behavior training, team members also learned about personality types and what motivates different people. They determined who is an extrovert, an introvert, an intuitive, a sensor, a thinker, a feeler, a judger or a perceiver. One thing a team has to understand is that everyone has strengths and personality traits that can help define who might be the best coder, the best tester, or the best business analyst.

The key is using this diversity to your advantage. Understand that it is not a contradiction to say people on the team are cross-functional but also talk about having specialties and encourage a balance. This doesn’t mean to not support specialties, but that specialists should not be rigid in their duties and should help balance effort for the type of work needed. An example that I commonly see is that coders only want to write code (sorry to all the coders out there for calling you out!). Coders/developers can help code automated test scripts as well as help groom the backlog.

Coaches should ultimately prepare teams for conflict. People with different personalities and work styles typically will self-adjust, but there is almost always that one person (I can even bet you just said their name as you read that). Unfortunately, it only takes one person to disrupt the positive energy on the team. I tend to think that the worst thing the team can do is adapt around that person or except their behavior. Teams should address the situation and the person for the good of the team. As a self-organizing team, it is the team’s responsibility to direct their work and decide how their team will work together. A scrum master or coach can give the team guidance, but should ultimately leave the team to decide when and how to address anything or anyone disrupting the team.

Intervene

I have participated in several team interventions. Interventions are the exception but are unavoidable. Some common behaviors that I’ve seen lead to an intervention are when a team member:

  • consistently makes the same type of mistakes and errors
  • violate team rules, common courtesy
  • be prone to conflict
  • put self-interest above the team
  • turn off or disregard others on the team
  • have a constant bad attitude
  • not carry their own weight or always do the minimum
  • alienate team members or customers
  • talk about others behind their back or to management
  • escalate conflict too quickly, too often

These are just a few intervention-worthy cases. Coaches can often help guide team members to collectively talk with the conflicting member on how to share collective concerns and successfully turn a valuable team member around! Interventions can be done via workshop or exercises to bring the behavior to the member’s attention subtly. However, sometimes there is no subtle way address the situation and you need to address it as the behavior is occurring.

Progressive Delegation

Managing people is a complicated and delicate practice. Most teams and organizations are most successful if they step into self-organization gradually and intentionally, which is called “Progressive Delegation”. There needs to be proper preparations both for the manager to let go and for the team to embrace the uncomfortable aspects and gain confidence, in spite of making mistakes along the transition.

Having been on a self-organizing and self-governing team, I can say there are certainly some days when you wish management would make decisions for the team. Sometimes there are some very tough decisions you don’t want to have to make. It’s like when you are a teen and you can’t wait to be an adult, but then at some point as an adult, you wish you were a carefree child again. As a self-organizing team, you WILL have to make decisions without all the information and within a tight time frame. You also have to be willing to take a risk when the situation calls for it.

This idea of Progressive Delegation is so important, Management 3.0 actually created a game about it. Delegation Poker is fun way to help management and the team gradually turn over decision-making tasks in a controlled environment. It can also help gauge if a manager isn’t letting go and if the team isn’t embracing what they’ve been empowered to do. More than anything, it’s a starting point for discussions on who should make what decisions. A coach can monitor and make sure they are making progress at a steady pace.

The TO BE

At the end of the transition a self-organizing team:

  • defines their own tasks
  • determines a time frame for commitments
  • is accountable and responsible as a team
  • brainstorms and makes decisions as a team
  • inspects regularly and adopts their approach so that they are continuously improving

Those shepherding the self-organizing environment need to ensure that team members are competent, taught how to be collaborative and rewarded for it, self-motivated while still motivated by their product owners and coaches, and trusting and respectful of each other. It is also important for a team to work together for a reasonable duration before making changes. It takes time to gel, so don’t switch out team members frequently or they’ll never know what an actual “well-formed team” feels like.

When all is said and done, know that the laws of science are on your side. When you put a group of organisms together, they naturally will find a way to work together to survive and thrive given the right space, limited constraints, a common goal and interest, and ample diversity.

If you need help organizing your teams to be self-organized, we’d love to help!

Thank you,

Jacqueline

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