A Rough Guide to Self-Organizing Teams

What is agile anyway? — Part 4

Self-organizing teams choose how best to accomplish their work, rather than being directed by others outside the team. — The Scrum Guide

Utopia. We get to decide how to do our work! No irritating team lead looking over our shoulders telling us what to do.

What could possibly go wrong?

Actually, a lot more than you think. Most teams love the idea of being self-organizing, until they have to take accountability for the problems that pop up as a result. No longer can they blame the bad planning, the tools, or the process for not delivering that others imposed on them. Now, they were the ones who did the planning, chose the tools and implemented the process.

In Sci-Fi transformations happen magically.

Fast. Instantly.

In the real world, however, we need a little more time and practice. Even though we’re on our way to becoming superheroes, but we’re not quite there yet. Expecting to be self-organizing after a lifetime of being managed by others in just one sprint or a few is a little harsh. Like any sustainable change, it’s a journey, not a magical click of the fingers.

The easiest journeys are ones that are predictable, well-planned, and well within your comfort zones. When you climb mount Everest for the first time though, it’s an adventure filled with unpredictable events and circumstances. Even for the most experienced climbers it remains a risky encounter.

Moving towards self-organizing teams is more like an adventure than an easy drive through the back-roads of Europe with your Eyewitness travel guide on your lap.

An adventure requires different planning than an enjoyable road trip through the countryside. For an adventure you plan how you’ll handle the unknown. You focus on the difficulties ahead and how you’ll overcome them.

You value responding to change over following a plan.

But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to plan. Actually, you need to be better prepared and plan more than what you would have for an easy country drive.

And you need rules.

Rules make us feel safe. Imagine driving in India, compared to Germany — two extreme examples when it comes to road rules.

In Germany, the roads are in good condition, designed for a smooth ride. There you sit back, switch on some music and converse with the person with you in the car, while enjoying the beautiful countryside around you. You’re relaxed and can focus on the landscapes around you, rather than to focus all your attention on how to avoid an accident.

You don’t have to know why the authorities came up with the rules, and you don’t have to understand the science behind it. You don’t have to worry about the complexity and logistics that go into designing the roads. All you need to do is follow the rules.

Similarly, when you’re managed by an experienced team lead, someone else worries about the complexities and obstacles on your journey. All you have to do, is make sure that you bring your part and enjoy the ride.

Self-organizing teams, however, take responsibility for these obstacles themselves and the journey can rather be compared to driving in India, where it’s a constant adventure compared to Germany. The driver has to constantly be on high alert, responding to the elements around him, rather than follow the rules.

There are rules, but you can’t exactly tell the elephants and cows that roam the streets to adhere to them. You have to bend and be flexible if you want to avoid an accident.

Becoming a self-organizing team is unexplored territory for most organizations, without defined rules and best practices. We have to make up these rules based on what works, and what doesn’t. We have to also bend and be flexible and react to our environment.

We don’t know all the answers yet, but we do know enough to make the journey a little less bumpy. We know that values are more important than technical skills, and we know that it takes a lot of responsibility.

We also need the following to be self-organizing, or autonomous:

  1. Trust and respect.

Trust is the foundation of any functional team, and respect is the glue that ensures that it doesn’t fall apart. Without a strong foundation, your house of cards are likely to crumble down with the first instability that presents itself.

2. Good communication skills.

Communication is the art of being understood, and trying to understand a viewpoint other than your own. It’s a we-mentality rather than a me-against-you one. It’s about finding the AND as apposed to focusing on the OR.

What do we have in common? How can we help each other achieve our goals? What do I know that will make your life easier? And what do you think?

These questions build strong teams. Sitting together and sharing resources don’t make you a team (read more about the one-person-team in part 2). A team shares a vision, not resources. They work together to achieve more than what one person can on his own, and that means you have to listen and contribute to the conversations.

Strong relationships, at home or work, are based on trust and communication. But if there is no communication there will be no trust. — Simon Sinek

3. Know each team member’s strengths and weaknesses.

Most jobs emphasize the hard skills needed to fit a specific role in the organization. A business analyst, with experience in SQL. A java developer with experience in eCommerce and mobile solutions. Good attention to detail, can-do attitude. You get the picture….

The biggest criticism I have of these type of job descriptions is that it’s so generic. A one-size-fits-all solution where each role is created based on the generic skills, placing little emphasis on the specific strengths and weaknesses of the individual, and how the individual can contribute.

It’s simply multiplying what you already have, or had in the past. You’re not creating an environment conducive to self-managing teams. Self-organizing teams are more like searching for the right, uniquely different puzzle piece that is missing from building a whole picture.

Image courtesy Rawpixel via www.unsplash.com

They know each others technical skills as well as their personality and communication style. They can form a whole from putting the different parts together.

Self-organizing teams know the strengths and weaknesses of each team member, and how to use it best.

4. Solve a problem.

Self-organizing teams work together towards a shared purpose. They focus on a desired outcome, specific to an audience.

Are you delivering value? Or are you producing artifacts?

When you focus on a specific problem to solve, or shared purpose, you spend less time competing, and more time collaborating. And collaboration is key.

5. Clearly, aligned requirements.

Expanding on the previous point, for a team to be autonomous, knowing the problem to solve is as important as knowing exactly what is expected from them now.

What is the best action right now that I can take to bring me closer to the desired solution?

There can’t be ambiguity and disagreement as to what each person thinks should be done. It should be clear, and it should be aligned throughout the team.

6. High confidence levels.

When a team knows what they need to do, and they know who is best at to get it done, they are able to quickly organize the tasks and get to work. That doesn’t however automatically mean that they can do it.

When you aren’t confident in your ability to complete a task, you aren’t able to work autonomously. Whether it is because you’re new to the team, or using new tools, autonomy requires high confidence, even if it is as simple as having high confidence that you will be able to learn what is required from you.

You need to believe in yourself. You need to trust yourself and your decisions.

7. Humility.

If you don’t believe in yourself, you can of course ask for help or guidance. That requires humility in many cases. An autonomous team leaves their ego at the door, and is always open to alternative solutions to problems.

When you believe you know all the answers, or that you should look as if you know all the answers, you put the entire team at risk of not delivering.

Everyone makes mistakes and no-one knows it all. A functional team admits when they’re wrong, they apologize, and they ask for help. They also ask where they can help when they see other team members struggle, even if it means that they have to do something considered beneath their seniority.

8. Defined authority and decision making.

When things go well autonomy and self-organization within a team is not a problem. It is when things don’t go well that things start falling apart.

For autonomy to work, there needs to be clear guidelines on authority-levels and who can make decisions that impact the whole team or other teams.

When things go well, everyone is empowered to make decisions and enforce it. When a problem is hit that falls outside of your comfort zone, the proposed decision is first discussed with the nominated go-to person.

There isn’t one person who carries all the authority, rather, there are different go-to people for different type of issues. A technical issue might be discussed with someone other than a personality clash.

Rather than defining a policy or procedure, define a decision making process.

Conclusion

Self-organizing teams need great technical skills, but even more than that, they need strong shared values. They need trust, respect, and great communication. They also need to be humble, leaving their ego at the door, always focusing on what is best for the team and the customers, rather than what’s best for me.

A cup of fresh ideas for old problems. Integrating technology, agile, gamification & lean to make workplaces more human, productive & fun. www.funficient.com