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Agile self-organized teams – is the team self-organized or not?

Image by Cyndie@smilebig!Where ever we read about self-organized teams, it often seems to be a binary thing – either the team is self-organized or it isn’t.

When people suggest that the team should become self-organized, the suggested process is presented as fairly easy and straight forward.

If you are amongst the people who believe these previous two statements, I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news. In exchange, I will offer you a free reality check. Team self-organization is neither binary nor straight forward – self-organization is an evolutionary process that takes time.

We have been helping customers implement self-organizations for years and we have been pushing the limits within our organization. Based on that experience, I am sharing 7 levels of self-organized teams.

  1. No opinion: Team members follow the direction of their manager. Not to be confused with Zombies or Living-Deads, these individuals are neither happy nor upset about being directed in their tasks – things are the way they are, period. These team members do not pay much attention to the organizational structure or who the actual leader is. They are strictly interested in “doing their job”. Although they may express an opinion with regards to the current structure, they don’t necessarily believe that self-organization is a better alternative. If you are moving towards self-organization, you shouldn’t spend much time convincing these people since they will gladly follow the official structure.
  2. Status quo: Team members have benefited from the current structure in the past and wish to preserve it. They are un-likely to want to change to any other team structure (including self-organization) until they clearly see the benefits of transitioning. To move towards self-organization, you will need to spend time demonstrating what the new structure will bring them specifically and gaining their trust so they are willing to experiment with what you are proposing.
  3. Selfish and irresponsible: Team members are happy to take advantage of being self-organized but only as long as it benefits them and that there are no increased responsibilities. Once a situation negatively impacts them (while benefiting the team), they aren’t willing to cooperate and when they are asked to take accountability for something, they shy away from the responsibility. In a nutshell, these individuals want the best of both worlds. To successfully transition to self-organization, it is critical to explain that they will need to make a decision and pick self-organization with responsibility or freedom outside the self-organized team.
  4. Interested and learning: Team members are very interested in being self-organized but aren’t familiar with the changes required for them to become autonomous. They are ready and willing to learn and fully embrace the proposed structure. These are key people in a transformation, they are the ones who will pull the others forward as long as you take the time to explain what they need to do.
  5. Self-organized: Team members are fully accountable and play by the rules of the team. They recognize their strengths and weaknesses and work on improving the organization of the team in order to become fully autonomous and self-supported. They deliver great results and need minimum involvement to remain in their current state. This is where you want your teams to be.
  6. Leading a self-organized team: Although the team is self-organized, leadership is always required. These individuals will willingly take responsibility to organize the existing teams (they are team members and not managers) or the new teams you are hoping to transition to the new model. In a transition, you will want to work with these individuals to spread the new model and increase the number of self-organized teams.
  7. Independent: Team members are too much self-organized. As a consequence, they no longer wish to be part of the organization and wish to go on their own. Although rare, in the event that self-organization transforms into full-autonomy, it may be necessary to break down the team and use some of the team members to help lead other self-organized teams.

The road to self-organization is long but very rewarding. Each organization needs to determine how far they are willing to push the model and how fast they wish to move.

You may also be interested in this post: I don’t believe in self-organized teams…

  1. I am glad you mentioned “leadership is always required” self-organized team by nature will fall into a hierarchy. If the hierarchy is not clearly established, nature will create the informal structure. And informal structure makes people angry…
    Leadership and accountability for results (through management) drive performance.
    Individual accountability is the employment contract.

    January 25, 2011
  2. Interesting article, but the distinction between individual states and team states is ambiguous. For example, “no opinions” describes probably the state of the majority of individuals on a team. That is why you should focus on the more mature individuals in the team (those at “status quo” or higher). This probably sound like nick-picking, but this could lead to an important distinction. I’ll give an example: a team where everyone is a “no opinion” is not a good candidate for an agile transition. Beforehand, there needs to be new blood injected. I suppose most agile transition work depends on correctly identifying the type of individuals, then with a description of the state of a group, you can apply the most appropriate leadership type.

    I work in an academic setting where the objective is to train “independents”. Someone pursuing a PhD is a student that will ultimately know more than and disagree with his supervisor (in specific topics), and eventually leaves to do research or R&D elsewhere. We are constantly trying to push people to go through these steps as quickly as possible, and we have strict time issues. A M.Sc. student is available for ~1 yr of research and a PhD student for ~4-5 yrs. If they do not become independent, then frankly, they are a waste of money for the research team. Furthermore, every semester there is a huge amount of turnover. A solid research lab wil typically have several PhD leaders, and is able to quickly train students to become independent (and publish).

    How things typically work:
    * Course-work forces students out of their comfort zones of stage (1).
    * Stage 2 is a problem because they cannot simply redo was has already been done; they need to come up with new ideas. We have team discussions/ brainstorms to try and encourage new ideas).
    * The majority of M.Sc. students land up and stay in stage 3. Students will try new ideas and never focus on what will lead them to their degrees.
    * Most PhD. students finish up in stage 4. They will be able to compare new ideas and try to integrate them in their work.
    * A few PhD students are able to organise collaborations within/outside their research group (instead of simply working with their supervisors). This is more difficult because it is done individually.
    * Finally, those who are able to lead will eventually leave to become researchers themselves and continue this cycle.

    January 25, 2011
    • Interesting comment Stephane.

      You bring a different spin to this post. Although I understand what you are describing, I feel there is a fundamental difference – the students you are referring to are not really part of a TEAM. They may work with other students and sometime complete team projects but overall they are fundamentally individual contributors. As such, it seems like the situation you are pointing to is somewhat different.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment on this post.

      January 25, 2011
  3. Great post and stirs up a ton of reactions on my part.

    But If I focus on this point :

    “Independent: Team members are too much self-organized. As a consequence, they no longer wish to be part of the organization and wish to go on their own. Although rare, in the event that self-organization transforms into full-autonomy, it may be necessary to break down the team and use some of the team members to help lead other self-organized teams.”

    If a tight group of individuals wishes to leave and fly on their own, there’s not much anybody can do about it, and all the power to them. If the team is broken-up, we might just end up with a bunch of disgruntle individuals and the inevitable will happen anyways (with maybe some damage on the way out) If a new path opens up for an individual or a team, let them take it, and a new form of partnership will hopefully emerge.

    On another point, we’ve got to ask ourselves : Self-organized to accomplish what? A small (4 to 9) self-organized team to deliver quality software makes complete sense to me. Asking that same team to also self-organize to manage finances, recruiting or lay-offs does not. The core purpose of the group is then diluted and the team will start feeling that dreadful lag created by task switching. Instead of refining the art of Test Driven Development, team members will be expected to crunch numbers and participate fully in managerial decisions, thus applying the Peter Principle on a daily basis.

    Self-Organized does not necessarily mean self-managed.


    January 25, 2011
    • Good comment Eric.

      The self-organized teams I was thinking about were context-based, meaning they came together to accomplish a specific goal. Trying to keep the team together to accomplish a totally different goal sounds like a bunch a problems (oops, the politically correct word is “challenge”).

      As for your point of using the team for something they aren’t qualified for, I fully agree with you. I wrote something on this topic a while ago.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      January 25, 2011
  4. @michael cardus

    Well said Michael. I love this “Leadership and accountability for results (through management) drive performance.”

    Thanks for your comment.

    January 25, 2011
  5. Martin,

    I completely agree that self-organization is an evolutionary process, and that there are different levels. There is a lot of emphasis on teams in agile literature, but is it really the TEAM that reaches the levels that you outline, or the individuals on the team? The reason that I ask is that I believe that a team can shift from being a status quo team (for example) to a self-organized state by the introduction of one or more catalysts to the team – a catalyst being someone who enthusiastically embraces self-organization and through their presence raises the level of the team, particularly those teams operating at the status quo, no opinion or interested and learning levels. My take is that assessing the level of where a team is at is the tip of the iceberg, and that you need to examine the individuals and their interactions to determine what can be done to help move the team towards a higher (and better) level.

    I posted my thoughts on Catalysts, Inhibitors, and High-Performing Teams on my blog if you have an interest:

    January 28, 2011

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