Self-Organizing Agile Teams Still Need Leadership

I am a huge fan of self-organizing, self-aggregating, self-directing teams. Huge! I have been witness to how much more productive and effective these teams are over traditional command-and-control teams subject to autocratic management styles. The self-organizing teams also foster an environment of elevated trust, shared responsibility and accountability. Gone are the days of internal finger-pointing or blame shirking. Without a doubt – these teams are better.

But on a few different teams I have worked with, I noticed some interesting things happen which I can only attribute to human-nature.

At different times on just about every project there are the tasks and activity that nobody likes to do. You know what these are: the thankless stuff that has to get done that people avoid like the plague. Script-writing, documenting, tedious refactoring, javascript debugging… — the list goes on and on. Given a choice, most times individuals will opt for more interesting, favorable activity. This causes a challenge for the self-organizing team. It it true that on small teams packed exclusively with top performers it is more likely that team members will self-organize to make the most responsible decisions — ie: doing the “right” thing vs. doing the “easy” thing. However on most teams I think the conflict between responsibility and convenience is ever-prevalent. A team needs a leader to ensure that it does the right thing. This requires the ability to effectively communicate, motivate and negotiate. I have witnessed the effects of teams without a leader and it typically results in deterioration in performance even under the best conditions.

Some Agile purists may chastise me and suggest that each Agile team member is a leader. I simply don’t buy it. I have seen teams and organizations that try to “lead by committee”; in my experience it always fails.  On the majority of teams, self-organization and consensus typically result in solutions to problems that represent the lowest common denominator — the option most palatable to the group. Such is the result of any group negotiation where the majority must buy-in and agree. But this lowest level of acceptability typically does not represent the “right” option, or the “best” option. Throw in the effects of “group-think” and the situations will deteriorate still further.  The most successful teams are those with servant leaders who exude a strong sense of leadership. It is often difficult to quantify, but you know good leadership when you see it.  Every team I have observed – Agile or otherwise – has failed or succeeded in large part based on the effectiveness of the team leader.

The team leader can be explicit or implied but his or her importance should not be minimized or diminished under the banner of self-organization. Nor should we downplay the importance of leadership when formulating or populating team.  It is through strong, effective leadership that we can create the most empowered and effective team.