Self-Organization: The Secret Sauce

Self- Organizing secret sauce

In the last decade, I’ve become quite a foodie. My ever expanding waistline is proof of this. I enjoy trying new types of food, and appreciate a meal that was carefully prepared to excite my taste buds. One of my favorite shows is Top Chef and I find myself watching the Food Network more than other channels. One thing that I have learned is that there is one key element that can make or break a meal. The sauce. While it may appear that the sauce is there to make the plate colorful, many sauces are quite complex in nature and are meant to enhance the taste and experience of your main dish. Likely, a bland or unappealing sauce can ruin a good meal.

In Agile, the team is the core element in the success or failure of greater agility in your organization. That’s why so much focus is at the team level. If you have high-performing teams that are reliable in delivering high-quality solutions that meet customer needs, you will be successful. If you have highly-dysfunctional groups of individuals that can’t deliver, you won’t. So, what’s the equivalent of that secret sauce for teams? Self-organization.

You are probably thinking right now, “Self-organized teams aren’t anything new, and it sure isn’t a secret that its important.” I would agree with you. Everybody knows self-organization is important, just like an amateur cook knows sauces are important. But how many teams really are self-organized and reaping the benefits? In my years as a coach, I usually come in to help teams get better and I realize what it takes for a team to truly become self-organized. While I wish I could provide you with the recipe for the perfect self-organized team, I can give you some of the ingredients you need to create your own secret sauce.

Self-organizing teams had deep influence into the core values and principles of Agile and Scrum. Within the 12 core principles of the Agile Manifesto is this: “The best architectures, requirements and designs emerge from self-organized teams.” There was a belief among the signers of the manifesto that the right teams under the right conditions could build great products. Putting the power of the solution and the right way to build those products in the hands of the team. If you don’t have the belief or trust in your team to have this kind of responsibility, you can’t expect them to truly self-organize and do whatever it takes to build a solid product.

Teams need certain conditions to be satisfied before they can achieve self-organization. A large influence to the founders of Scrum was an article that appeared in the Harvard Business Review called “The New New Product Development Game”. The article focused on what it takes for a team to become high-performing and long lasting. One of those elements was self-organization. In the article, they mentioned three keys for this to happen:

  1. Autonomy – Management involvement is limited to providing guidance, money and morale support at the outset. On a day-to-day basis, top management seldom intervenes; the team is free to set their own direction. This sounds a lot like another one of the 12 principles “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”,
  2. Self-Transcendence – Project teams seem to be absorbed in a never ending quest for “the limit”. Starting with the guidelines set forth by top management, they begin to set their own goals and keep on elevating them throughout the development process. By pursuing what appear at first contradictory goals, they devise ways to override the status quo and make the big discovery. Sounds a lot like another of the principles, “At regular intervals, the team reflects how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviors accordingly.”,
  3. Cross-Fertilization – A team consisting of members of varying functional specializations, thought processes, and behavior patterns carriers out new product development. You start thinking in terms of what’s best for the group at large and not only where you stand. If everyone understands the other person’s position, then each of us is more willing to give in, or at least try to talk with each other.

Team members must have a different mindset and change of behaviors to be part of a self-organized team.  Following are just a few of the attributes of a team members that is part of a self-organized team:

  • Accept change – Team is always looking for ways to improve how they work, we should be willing to open minded and accept change as it happens.
  • Try new things – Team makes commitments as a group, we may have to step out of our comfort zone and learn something new in order to help the team commitment. This requires taking risks, experimenting and helping the team with work outside your job description.
  • Take action, instead of waiting to be told what to do – We can not wait for someone to tell us what to do, if we see something that needs to be done, we share that with the team or do it if necessary.
  • Help others to succeed – If you see that someone needs help or more experience in a certain skill, offer your assistance if you can. In the end, this helps the team succeed.
  • Consensus decision making – The team will have to make many decision, they will need to agree as a team on how they will make decisions.
  • Peer coaching and feedback – The team should be looking for ways to become cross-functional and amplify learning. One way of doing this is through peer coaching and giving feedback to one another.
  • Group problem solving – The team is responsible for solving problems together quickly.
  • Conflict management – Learning how to resolve conflicts, teams will have to agree together on how they will resolve conflicts amongst the team.

Teams need coaches to help them on the initial path towards self-organization. You will see in XP and Scrum the notion that outside leadership is needed. XP has the role of XP Coach and Scrum has the ScrumMaster role. People in these roles are focused on how to help the team reach a level of high-performance. So, a large part of their effort is to help the team get in place the ingredients mentioned above. Are you in those positions but not sure how to get started? You might consider getting an external coach that has seen firsthand teams that are self-organized and get their help. Don’t just think learning practices is enough for teams to get good. Even the best conceived dishes can be poorly executed because they forget the sauce! 


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