Misconceptions about Self-Organizing Teams

At a recent conference, I over-heard three managers talking about self-organizing teams.

“You can’t just turn people loose and let a team make all the decisions. They’ll mess things up. And with all these ScrumMasters, coaches, and self-organizing teams, sounds like I’m out of a job,” said one with resignation.

“This time boxing thing is great,” said another. “Put them in a room, turn up the heat, and they’ll perform,” said a second manager.

“Wow, this means I can move people around based on projects, and they’ll just form and self-organize. I can have rolling, ad hoc Scrum teams!” crowed a third.

Time to rectify some misconceptions.

# 1. Self-organizing teams are completely autonomous, self-managing, and don’t need managers.

# 2. All you need to do to form a self-organizing team is provide a goal and apply pressure.

#3. Since the team is self-organizing, they can accommodate moving people on and off the team easily.

Misconception: Self-organizing teams don’t need managers.

There’s a reason we use the term “self-organizing” rather than “self-organized” or “self-managed.” That’s because it’s a process and a characteristic, not something that is done once and for all. Self-organizing, from a social systems perspective only means that the team can create new approaches and adapt to meet new challenges in their environment.

Self-organizing Agile teams do have–bounded—authority to make their own commitments, organize and assign their own work. They craft appropriate strategies to accomplish their goals, and make decisions with (again bounded) economic and organizational impact.

But they are not out there on their own, disconnected from the organization. Self-organizing teams exist to produce a product or service that is valuable to the organization and its customers. They are accountable to make their progress visible, and work within financial boundaries. Self-organizing teams may also be self-managed, to one degree or another.

Managers must create the conditions that enable teams to thrive and continue to self-organize. Manager need to work across the organization to create a work system that enables teams to deliver value to customers and the organization. And managers need to work with the team to set appropriate boundaries and constraints. Managers still act as agents for the corporation. Therefore, they still must be involved where there are legal or fiduciary responsibilities.

Misconception: Time boxing forces any group to become a team. Put a group of people together and hand them a challenge and they’ll gel.

I wouldn’t bet on it, and neither should you. Teams do need a clear and compelling work goal. Without that, there’s no reason to form a team. They also need the technical skills required by the work and interpersonal skills to work as a team. They need resources such as tools and access to information and education. They need a connection to the larger organization.

The pressure cooker method of team formation will more likely burn people out than result in the productivity of a real team. Calling a group a team and turning up the heat, doesn’t make it so.

Time boxing is one of the structures than can help teams succeed by providing focus. Working in time boxes creates a natural rhythm of feedback and connection to the team’s purpose. But a time box and goal, in and of themselves, don’t create a team.

Misconception: Self-organizing agile teams should be able to accommodate frequent membership changes. After all, they’re agile aren’t they?

Teams need time to develop the strategies and trust that enables high performance. They need time to understand each others strengths and weaknesses, develop shared knowledge, and learn how to learn together.

When new people constantly arrive and leave, a group may never develop the shared approaches and shared knowledge that permit them to outperform a group of individuals.

Some teams—when they’ve had time to form and create a strong team culture—do become adept at adding new members. Even then, it’s best to limit the number of new members added at any given time. Changing more than 30% of team membership causes the team to reboot. Constant turnover prevents a team from truly forming.

As a manager, you can help by keeping teams together long enough to gel, and by protecting teams from the revolving door syndrome.

Reality

Self-organizing teams are not teams gone mad. Like all teams, they need a compelling goal, skills, information, and enough time to form and perform. And they still need managers to create a supportive context, set appropriate boundaries and constraints and connect the team to the organization.

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