Self-Organizing Teams – A Quick Guide

Ruth Hadari
Ruth Hadari
Agile Advocate, Engineering Ops Expert
Posted on
Apr 28, 2022
Updated on
Jun 12, 2022
Table of Content

Want better performance, better delivery, and increased motivation? It's time to implement project management's popular trend: self-organizing teams.

A self-organizing team is an integral part of Agile project management.

Although self-organization was meant for software development teams, more companies found it helpful in increasing productivity and efficiency in other groups across the organization. Any boost in team morale or product innovations is a bonus, so this mantra was implemented across the board. 

According to McKinsey, smaller teams with self-organization and Agile methodologies in their operating models can manage their tasks seamlessly. 

This article will expound on self-organizing teams, what emerges from a self-organizing team and how to build one.

What Characterizes a Self-Organizing Team?

A self-organizing team is precisely what it sounds like: a team that organizes itself into action. 

These teams don't wait for the instructions and directions from their manager like a traditional team; a self-organizing team identifies the essential tasks that need to be done while managing and prioritizing their deadlines.

While there's no clear definition of self-organizing teams in the Agile Manifesto, here are some characteristics that these teams embody:

Collaboration

A self-organizing team needs to work together. Without a manager to push them forward, it's down to the team to communicate, collaborate and complete the task at hand.

Continuous Improvement

A self-organizing team is also self-governing. There is no figurehead directing you on what an individual does well and what they need to work on. Consequently, members of self-organizing teams also need to seek out growth opportunities to improve their skill sets, and should be open to intra-team feedback.

Ownership

For self-organized teams to run efficiently, team members need to take ownership of their work, including slip-ups.

If team members don't own up to their mistakes, it can result in a backlog of problems with no clarification of how they happened in the first place. This means starting from square one instead of simply working backwards to fix the specific issue.

Trust and Respect

Conflict within team members is inevitable, particularly without a conventional management figure to supervise proceedings. Team members need to be respectful towards their co-workers, regardless of differences in opinions. A competent self-organized team consists of people who can understand that.

Try these remote development productivity tips if you want to learn more.

What Emerges from Self-Organizing Teams?

The best designs, requirements, and architectures emerge from a self-organizing team.

While control and command are top-down tactics, Agile empowers self-organizing teams. Individuals at the ground level typically have viable ideas on how to accomplish things in the best way possible.

The highest priority is to satisfy the customer through continuous and early deliverables. Agile methodologies harness change for the competitive advantage of customers.

An Agile self-organizing team builds projects around motivated members. Give them the autonomy, support, and a conducive environment, and they'll get the job done.

Agile processes encourage sustainable development. The developers, users, and sponsors should maintain a constant stride indefinitely, and the continuous emphasis on sound design and technical excellence enhances agility.

At the same time, it is important to understand that every team works differently. Members may want to split tasks one way, whereas the other team has a different approach to allocating work. This means that each team gets to decide as per their best judgment. Also, they do what may work best for their respective team rather than being instructed by others.

Like other Agile approaches, communication is paramount, and by holding frequent retrospectives with the self-organization of teams, it can be easier to strive for ongoing improvement.

The key ingredient of an effective and Agile self-organizing team is the right people with adequate experience—individuals whose experiences, authority, and insights result in clarity and efficiency for everyone else.

Self-organization is not treated independently of other constituents of advanced work practices; it thrives in a setting that values learning and simplicity. 

So what emerges from a self-organizing team?

  • Navigate team interaction and skill sets 
  • Deal with miscast team roles
  • Better define team dynamics 
  • Bring reassurance to the pool of talent in a team

Why Do Agile Teams Find It Very Beneficial to Be Self-Organizing?

An Agile setting appreciates and embraces failure while prioritizing cross-functionality above siloed functions. 

In an Agile environment, a self-organizing team can be more constructive when executed the right way. All team members make decisions that impact the group, not just a single individual.

Here is why Agile teams find it beneficial to be self-organizing:

Better Speed of Delivery and Agility

Agile self-organizing teams can quickly decide on the critical tasks they need to accomplish and how they can effectively meet the corresponding timelines, resulting in better delivery speed. As the performing groups are Agile, they can also react rapidly to market-related fluctuations. Without managers, teams can quickly shift gears and don't have to wait for approval/permission from higher-ups.

Less Emphasis on Team Management

Agile self-organizing teams are entirely responsible for tracking their progress and assigning work. As a result, the teams don't have to spend additional resources to recruit a manager to assign and delegate tasks, manage deadlines, check employee statuses, and fill out timesheets.

Improved Focus on Quality

Rather than just performing tasks that a manager assigns, the self-organizing team has to focus  on customer expectations while staying organized at work. It is imperative to take customer feedback seriously and build top-notch products that align with the needs of the customers and the market.

Increased Employee Satisfaction

When employees can pick out their tasks, decide on project timelines, and set their schedules, they are more satisfied and feel more autonomous while working high motivation. There is no micromanagement, and so a self-organizing team gives every employee the freedom to work flexibly in their capacity (just make sure you take their WIP limits under consideration). This improves accountability and performance.

How to Build a Self-Organizing Agile Team?

First and foremost, it is pivotal to get the right people on board for a specific team with the appropriate skills for the responsibilities and tasks ahead.

Once you have selected your team, this is how to create self-organizing teams:

Training

Self-organization looks different for every team member. Therefore, preparing them is key. They will also need to be trained on the structure required to perform in a certain way and the necessary skills to communicate better.

Coaching

The early stages of transitioning and becoming a self-organizing Agile team can be challenging. In a study by Alistair Cockburn, various participants defined the transitioning phase as a “struggle, challenge, difficulty, and war.”

This may appear counterintuitive, but having extra team members who coach a core team throughout the transition can make a significant difference.

Mentoring

As the team starts organizing itself, they'll still require valuable mentoring sessions to grow their skill set and maintain balance among members. The primary goal of mentoring is to allow all team members to stay motivated and ensure that the team grows together.

Wrapping Up

A self-organized team shares principles, values, and purpose; they respect, trust, and support each other, and they want to thrive. Collectively, they aim to build the software while ensuring quality product delivery.

To cope with today's fast-paced, ever-changing and complex business environment, enterprises need to change their overall model to generate highly responsive and adaptive organizations. The use of self-organized teams with their emergent, reactive properties is one of the ways to achieve this goal.

Check out these 5 tips to make your development team more productive and Agile.

The ability to self-organize teams around project objectives has become critical to Agile methodologies. By leveraging the entire team's collective wisdom, members can optimally organize their tasks in a way that a manager simply can't.

With the right resources and processes, self-organizing teams can collaborate faster, better, and more effectively.

About the author

Ruth Hadari
Agile Advocate, Engineering Ops Expert

Highly experienced in leading multi-organizational teams, groups, in-shore as well as off-shore. The go-to person who is able to simplify the complex. An agile advocate, experienced in all common methodologies. Responsible for the entire software development lifecycle process from development, QA, DevOps, Automation to delivery including overall planning, direction, coordination, execution, implementation, control and completion. Drives execution, and communicates on status, risks, metrics, risk-mitigation and processes across R&D.

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