Part of my consulting work with clients is helping them adopt Agile and lean software development practices, which among other things means fostering and putting in place self-organizing teams.
"Self-organization" can be a very loaded term, and when there is not a discussion within organizations around what this means, teams will typically create their own convenient meaning for it. In some organizations where the culture has a lot of directivity by management teams, I sometimes even see the term “self-organized teams” become weaponized in different ways, which I will tell you more about later.
I've heard many different meanings and interpretations of "self-organized team" from my clients and would like to share some of the misconceptions I hear, as well as some potential root causes and ideas to address them.
To set a baseline, let me describe to you my own high-level interpretation of a self-organizing team. When I use this term with clients, I usually mean:
I could add more to this because we could involve different facets of self-management in this as well, but this definition is sufficient for the purpose of this article.
This is the softest weaponized form that I hear around self-organized teams. I typically hear this from team leaders who are uncomfortable bringing leadership and guidance to their teams in certain situations.
One of the places I often see this relates to process. Imagine for a moment you are leading your team in a change initiative. What is the container or structure that you would like the team to use? Should they do a plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle? What does that cycle look like?
As the leader of the initiative, should you propose a structure or let the team struggle to create one? Should you even propose having a structure? Should you just assume one will emerge? What is the best approach?
The answer depends a lot on the maturity of the team and their capability. If it is a brand-new initiative, the team may appreciate the guidance to help them better work together and may be frustrated and angry when it is not there. Proposing something upfront can actually set the tone for the team culture.
The other key decision factor is the capacity of the team to make decisions together. There is some learning needed to become a team, and it can be useful for the leader to provide an initial structure.
The is subtle difference between this perspective and the previous one is that this one typically comes from the manager of a self-organized team.
There is a myth or, rather, a belief out there that when a team is self-organized, the manager needs to completely disappear, do nothing and say nothing. The team gets to decide everything and even make bad business decisions.
The truth of the matter is these teams operate in the context of a business, and in this context there are some accountabilities that need to remain with managers, general managers and executives.
There needs to be clarity for the teams; there needs to be a sandbox within which self-organization is possible. When the team wants to make decisions that are outside that sandbox, it is the role of their manager to point it out to the team and bring them back into the sandbox.
This is the stronger weaponized use of the term “self-organized team.” This one happens when someone (or everyone) on the team is pushing back against a perceived authority figure.
I often see this kind of pushback when teams reach what I lovingly refer to as the “rebelling teenager phase.” You know, that phase where they feel because they are self-organized, they can make whatever decision they want.
If I stick with the teenager metaphor, it is the time where they are learning to stand up for themselves and express their opinions. During this time, they have a strong belief that they no longer need the authority figures, although whenever it seems convenient you hear them express they still do.
The challenge here is teaching the teams they can self-organize — but within a certain sandbox. There are some things they may decide and other things they cannot. Making sure where you are delegating decisional authority is key. You can check out the seven levels of delegation to get some inspiration around this.
Fostering self-organized teams can be very easy or incredibly hard depending on the organizational culture and how long people have been in the organization.
As a leader, it is important to work with your teams to help them align on what self-organization actually means and support the team in finding their way back to this agreement.
As a leader, it is also important for you to align your actions and decisions to support your teams in their journey toward self-organization. If the teams start noticing you are asking them for one thing and acting in the opposite way, you will quickly lose credibility.
What does the term self-organization mean in your organization? What can you do to better foster the self-organization of your teams?