Scrum and other Agile teams know how important it is for teams to take ownership of the product development process and work autonomously. Despite this non-hierarchical approach to product development, many software development teams are still reliant on product owners and Scrum Masters to dole out tasks and organize timelines. Self-organizing teams are a solution that reduces the reliance on managers and advocates for collective accountability.
Read on to learn:
- What self-organizing teams are
- The difference between self-organizing and self-managing teams
- Are agile teams self-organizing?
- The benefits of self-organization in Scrum
- The role of leadership in self-organizing teams
What are self-organizing teams?
Self-organizing product development teams self-motivate and organize in order to deliver a product. Without the intervention of managers, self-organizing team members use bottom-up planning to organize and assign tasks. The team as a whole takes accountability for pending tasks, while each individual chooses the tasks they’d like to work on.
The main feature of self-organizing teams is that they proactively manage tasks and timelines to deliver a product. In self-organizing teams, decision-making is collaborative. Self-organizing teams are non-hierarchical, and all team members take accountability for task completion.
Differences between self-organizing teams and self-managed teams
In both Agile project management and Scrum, the terms “self-organizing” and “self-managing” refer to autonomous teams. Agile literature uses “self-organizing teams” frequently, whereas “self-managed teams” shows up in the Scrum Guide more often.
Despite the confusion of terms, some people differentiate between the two terms on the basis of how autonomous a team is. In this view, self-managed teams are a broader type of team that enjoy a basic level of autonomy. Self-managed teams are responsible for deciding how to complete tasks. Self-organizing teams, however, enjoy a higher level of autonomy by deciding not just how to assign and complete tasks, but also how to organize the team itself and their metrics for success.
Self-directed teams are even more autonomous in that the purpose and direction of the team comes from within, instead of from above. Self-organizing teams have the autonomy to set the team structure, timelines, and task assignments. However, management (more specifically, the product owner) is usually in charge of the overall direction of the team.
Challenges faced by self-organizing teams
Thanks to the level of autonomy that the whole team gets to enjoy, it isn’t hard to see why the idea of self-organizing teams appeals to so many. However, self-organizing teams don’t come without their fair share of challenges.
Here are some of the obstacles that self-organizing teams may face, along with some tips for how to either avoid or overcome them:
- Reverting to old ways: Teams are usually excited by an Agile transformation like the one from a traditional to a self-organizing team structure. Once the first problem occurs, however, some teams may lack the training needed to overcome that challenge and therefore fall back into a more hierarchical team structure. For example, self-organizing teams only work if everyone agrees on task assignments collectively. What happens if there’s a serious dispute about task assignment? Without proper training, many teams will try to get a manager to give a final ruling.
- Managing different personalities: Diverse teams have diverse personalities, which is essential for cross-functional teams. Some team members are more extroverted, and some are more introverted. Some members work best on creative tasks, while others thrive with more detail-oriented tasks. In a traditional development team, the product owner would be the one to manage these different personalities and assign tasks accordingly. In self-organizing teams, however, the team must collectively take initiatives to manage personality types. Challenges may arise when team members don’t have the self-reflection needed to know what tasks match their work style best.
- Communication breakdowns: Communication is an essential component of self-organizing teams. If teams aren’t communicating well, they’re not going to be able to assign tasks and set timelines effectively.
- Lack of accountability: In self-organizing teams, the team as a whole is accountable for the success of a project. Therefore, if the project isn’t successful, there isn’t a single person to assume responsibility. This lack of personal ownership can be problematic for stakeholders who want to assign accountability if and when things go wrong. In addition, some people require external accountability in order to perform well, and may not be well suited to an autonomous self-organizing team.
Self-organizing teams seem like an ideal that’s impossible to achieve, and the reality is that not all teams or team members can become self-organizing. It takes a high level of skill, motivation, and a desire for autonomy to be part of a self-organizing team, and the process should always be intentional in order to avoid the challenges above.
Are Agile teams self-organizing?
Agile is an approach to software development that emphasizes adapting to change and working closely with customers to develop and deliver software. The Agile framework focuses on delivering software faster by iterating on steps, instead of completing one part of the project before moving on to the next. An Agile environment allows teams to break down the project into smaller parts, and swiftly respond to changes as the project evolves.
Do self-organized teams fit into Agile software development? The Agile Manifesto outlines 12 main principles of the Agile approach, and three of them directly relate to self-organizing teams.
- “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”
This principle points to a team organization that’s supportive and motivating, but relatively hands-off. In self-organizing teams, individuals are motivated to get the job done because they’re able to choose what tasks they want to work on.
- “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.”
This principle acknowledges the power of Agile self-organizing teams to produce the best products and foster the most effective work environment.
- “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.”
Self-organizing teams are responsible for improving on iterations of the software development lifecycle.
These three principles of the Agile Manifesto clearly illustrate how self-organizing teams fit into an Agile approach. The core characteristics of self-organizing teams also align with an Agile approach:
- Teamwork and collaboration: Because there’s no traditional manager, self-organizing teams rely on a high level of teamwork and collaboration.
- Competency: Every team member excels in their chosen field of software development, and they also display proficient project management skills. Not having a manager means that team members need to have the competence necessary to troubleshoot potential problems and create a quality product.
- Continuous improvement and growth: Just like the product development lifecycle is iterative, self-organizing teams are constantly iterating in order to improve and grow.
- Respect and trust: Because every team member is equally invested in product development, self-organizing teams have a baseline of respect and trust needed to work collaboratively.
- Ownership: Without a manager to take the fall of accountability, every member in a self-organizing team takes ownership not only of their own work, but the project as a whole.
Self-organizing teams fit well into an Agile approach to software development because of their focus on collaboration, ownership, as well as the reduced reliance on hierarchical team structures.
Self-organization in Scrum teams
Scrum is a specific methodology of software development under the wider umbrella of Agile methodologies. Scrum teams are cross-functional, meaning that they consist of individuals across many disciplines. In that way, the team represents every aspect of product development. Every Scrum team has a product owner, project manager, and a Scrum Master that manages the flow of new product development.
The product development process in a Scrum team occurs in sprints of work, followed by retrospective and review, delivery to the client, and ultimately cycling back through to another sprint. Sprints are periods of uninterrupted work in order to achieve an increment of value. Because sprints address the product incrementally, there’s a product backlog of unfinished features that accrues. As each sprint finishes, the product backlog decreases.
The Scrum method defines three kinds of managers in a team: Scrum Master, product owner, and project manager, but it doesn’t mean that Scrum teams cannot be self-organizing. Self-organizing teams are not self-directed, which means that the overall objective of the team is set from above. A product owner can set the team’s objectives by putting together user stories, creating the roadmap, and ordering the project into a product backlog. Once the team has set their objectives and overall directions, however, the self-organized team doesn’t necessarily require a project manager to define the sprint goal. In addition, as long as the self-organized team is familiar with the Scrum framework, there doesn’t need to be a separate Scrum Master. The product owner can also act as the Scrum Master and can provide some guidance on sticking to the Scrum framework, if needed.
Benefits of self-organization in Scrum
There are many benefits to self-organization in Scrum. In general, self-organizing teams fit into the Scrum method because they’re highly collaborative and built for iteration.
The main benefits of a self-organizing team are increased agility, less need for management, and more satisfied team members:
- Increased agility and delivery speed: Because self-organizing teams don’t need a manager in order to drive the project forward, they’re much more agile and able to respond to changing project requirements and priorities. Self-organized teams can quickly pivot without having to consult a manager. In other words, there’s no managerial red tape.
- Less need for management: Product owners and other stakeholders don’t need to invest resources in multiple management positions for self-organizing teams, because they’re non-hierarchical. Instead, team members collectively tackle problem-solving and task management.
- Happier teams: Because individuals get to choose their tasks and set their own timelines, self-organizing teams tend to be more motivated and satisfied with their work. Micromanagement is a common employee complaint, but because self-organizing teams are self-sufficient, there are less opportunities for micromanagement.
Self-organizing teams are self-sufficient, which is the ultimate goal of the Scrum method. The result is software development that runs smoothly and doesn’t waste resources.
What is the role of leadership in Agile self-organizing teams?
The main concern that managers may have in forming a self-organizing team is that they’re too good to be true, and that there will always be lazy people who won’t participate in collective action and accountability. Managers may question how it’s possible to motivate a team without the interference of management. The key is in building and training the right team, as well as effective time management.
Choosing the right people for Agile self organizing teams
Not everyone is capable of working without the oversight of a manager, and some people genuinely prefer the external direction that a manager provides. The right kind of people for a self-organizing team are those who do their best work without a manager. Choose team members who have proven that, in the absence of direction, they can still work proactively. While that may sound like you’re looking for leadership qualities in an employee, it’s better to choose employees who value collaboration over leadership. A proactive, collaborative team member is best for self-organizing teams because they will find solutions by working together rather than assuming a leadership position.
Self-organizing teams should always be cross-functional. It’s important that your team includes people from different disciplines and skill sets for efficient collaboration. Because the self-organizing team doesn’t have a manager to solve problems for them and offer a different perspective, the diverse viewpoints of a cross-functional team will allow the team to solve most problems.
Training a self-organizing team
Being on a self-organizing team is likely very different from any other traditional team experience that team members have had before. Therefore, training is essential to ensure that team members understand the principles behind self-organizing teams, and how they function. If the team isn’t familiar with Agile principles and the Scrum method, then upper management should train them accordingly.
Training should include hard skills training to ensure that they have the skills to produce desired results and troubleshoot problems. Soft skills are equally important in training, to ensure that every team member has the skills needed to successfully manage a collaborative environment.
In the early stages of a self-organizing team, they will likely need someone to guide them towards more collaboration and proactive problem solving. A coach assumes the position of guiding the team towards healthy team dynamics. The coach can also provide the team with templates for managing sprints and completing tasks. The more established the team becomes, the less important the role of the coach.
Mentoring is an important part of self-organizing teams. They help team members improve their skills and maintain balance in the team. No matter what stage the team is in, a mentor is useful for that extra bit of guidance and knowledge.
Time management in a self-organizing team
Without a manager to set and enforce deadlines, time management can be a struggle for self-organizing teams. Because self-organized teams work within the Scrum method, they require periods of uninterrupted Focus Time during sprints, as well as frequent meetings.
Clockwise automates everyone’s schedule on the team to ensure that everyone has the uninterrupted Focus Time they need to complete tasks. Meeting scheduling can be especially difficult with self-organizing teams because every team member attends standups and meetings. Flexible Meetings automatically adjusts meeting times to find the best time for everybody to meet, without having to send countless emails back and forth.
Communication is essential in self-organizing teams. Asynchronous communication apps like Slack help teams communicate quickly and share files. Task management is also essential in self-organizing teams. Because the team itself manages all task assignments, they need an efficient task management system. Clockwise integrates with Asana so that all tasks get automatically added to Google Calendar as time blocks.
Time management is an essential part of success for self-organizing teams.
While self-organizing teams are non-hierarchical structures, they still benefit from leadership and team management, especially when the team is just forming. Coaches and mentors help teams adjust to the new structure as well as providing guidance. Product owners are still important aspects of self-organizing teams and can interface with stakeholders to ensure that the team’s progress is aligned with customer expectations.
Are self-organizing teams right for your product development team? Self-organizing teams have the benefit of increased collaboration and self-management. While not all team members do well on a self-organized team, proactive and collaborative team members can make a strong self-organizing team. Self-organizing teams are the pinnacle of Agile and Scrum methods, but forming them requires intentionality in order to really reap the benefits.