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The myths of self-organized teams

Image by Lauren_MillerMany Agile practitioners will push forward the concept of self-organized teams as a first step towards an Agile transition. Unfortunately, self-organization is often mis-understood and many become frustrated with the concept. Below are myths taken from real life situations – including the inner workings of our organization.

  • Self-organized teams can only work with experienced people. Although more experienced individuals may make it easier to self-organize, they can also make it much more difficult due to their old work habits. Overall, the age of the team members or their actual experience doesn’t impact their ability to self-organize. Self-organization has more to do with the people’s willingness to self-organize and the support they get from their manager than it has with age or experience.
  • Self-organized teams don’t need a leader. Wrong, self-organized teams still need a leader to move them through the various stages and toward their end goal. This being said, it doesn’t mean that the leader has to be a manager or a person in authority. Quite the contrary. Emerging leadership is a much better way to achieve self-organization but management needs to be patient because self-organization takes time.
  • Self-organized teams don’t need managers. Why not? Managers are a key success factor to support self-organization. Once again, this doesn’t mean that the manager is included in the self-organized team or that the manager will be leading the team. As Jurgen puts it – “Agile managers work the system around the team, not the people in the team”.
  • Self-organized teams are for everyone. Not necessarily, some people may not be ready for self organization or they may not be willing. Everybody has the capacity to be part of a self-organized team, it is simply a matter of wanting to be part of such a team because it is demanding and requires people to become responsible and accountable.
  • Self-organized teams are easy to implement. Really? If it was easy, why wouldn’t everyone adopt self-organization? The fact is that starting at a young age, we keep being told what to do (brush your teeth, go to bed, pick up your clothes, do your homework, show up at the office at 9am, finish the report for your boss, go on vacation in July, retire at 65, etc.) Wanting to be self-organized and taking control of your life is counter-intuitive and difficult. People in self-organized teams often act as victims of circumstances during the early stages (I can’t do this because the system won’t allow me) and then start to notice the opportunity the freedom of choice brings.
  • Self-organized teams quickly increase the team’s performance. No, it won’t. The team’s performance will indeed increase and for the long run but self-organization requires time, energy and much efforts to deliver results. If you are interested in quick-wins with minimal investments (time and/or money), I would suggest the Agile magic pill.

Autonomy or self-organization is a strong contributing factor for motivation and motivated individuals lead to improved performance and better results. Attempting to implement self-organized teams without understanding the risks and the energy required isn’t a good idea.

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Interesting post Martin. I blogged about self-organizing teams a few years back (see http://blog.bradapp.net/2009/06/agile-self-organizing-teams.html) and reached some similar conclusions.

    One thing I also noticed would happen a lot is that if a team that was formerly commanded-and-controlled was newly “empowered” and tried to self-organize, that without guidance in the form of shared goals, values and principles, they would quickly mimic all the same dysfunctional behaviors amongst themselves that the all too often complained management was doing to them.

    I wrote: 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.

    January 31, 2012

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  1. links for 2011-05-08 « Dan Creswell’s Linkblog
  2. Making The Entire Organization Agile | Pyxis blog

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