Why Exactly Do We Want Self-organizing Teams?

First off, what does self-organization mean? self-organization is the ability for a team to organize in a way that allows them to be most efficient for a given slice of work.

What does this mean within an organization? While focusing on the team level, it means that what you want to do as an organization is bring problems to the team. Tell the team what you want and why and then allow the team to figure out how they will deliver that slice of value.

Your crazy Agile coach comes walking in one day and says, “We need self-organizing teams.” What are the fears an organization has when they hear that? Well, I did a recent brainstorming session on this specific thing, and here's a few of the thoughts that came out: Chaos, the team doing whatever it wants, no work being done, and conflict.

Before I address those fears, I want to first explain why self-organization is important, and it all revolves around motivation.

In Dan Pink’s wonderful book, Drive, he talks about what motivates us as creative individuals, and puts them into 3 big buckets: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

  • Autonomy is the big one you get from self-organization. You’re being allowed to pursue your goal in the best way you see fit. While pursuing that goal, you’re also contributing to Mastery: getting better at what you’re doing.
  • When teams feel that they need to get approval for everything they do, or that they don’t have the ability to experiment and/or fail on occasion, their creativity and as a result, the team's innovation is crushed under the weight of command and control.
  • Purpose is the reason for doing something, so when you’re working on a project, the purpose can stem from the vision of that project. Vision being the long-term goal, or road map. Having that vision will reduce the amount of chaos, reduce the team simply doing whatever it wants.

Granting the team autonomy will also increase the team’s accountability. Instead of being accountable to a manager, they are suddenly accountable to one another. In short, this means they are able to set expectations for one another, they deal with each other on a day to day basis and as a result, the team’s manager no longer needs to be the hall monitor. This should assuage the fear of a team not getting anything done as well as reduce the conflict both within the team and externally.

By providing a strong vision, and supplying guidelines while allowing teams to self-organize in how they get their work done, you’re allowing them to be more motivated through Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. This hypermotivated team will deliver higher quality, more innovative software, and will be more willing to take on the tough challenges their organization may have.

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