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What is a self-organizing team? How does it work?

Self Organizing Teams illsutration

Some see it as the ultimate means for a team to gain autonomy and productivity. Others perceive it as a utopia created to oppose hierarchical organizations. The concept of team self-organization has gained much traction in the last few years, and its popularity continues to grow.

In this article, I will share an easy-to-grasp introduction to self-organization. Not only is it the main focus of my research, but it also reflects my own experience since I am part of a self-organizing team at Neatro. 

We will focus on the foundations of self-organization, debunk some preconceived ideas, and break down the advantages of this approach. Then I will offer you some practical means to strive for more self-organization with your own team.

One last warning before you continue reading: the rumor says that when teams get a taste of self-organization, it becomes challenging for them to return to a traditional model afterward. 

So don’t tell us you haven’t been warned…

Self-organization, as seen in Nature

According to Wikipedia “self-organization is a process in which a system is organized by itself.” The various internal and external interactions in this system naturally bring it the order it needs to function.

During my research on the subject, I made an exciting discovery thanks to the work of Carl Anderson and Elizabeth McMillan. That’s why I would like to talk to you about… ants.

Indeed, the principle of self-organization is very common in nature, especially with insects.

Therefore, when an insect threatens an ant colony, there isn’t a particular team dedicated to defending the anthill. Instead, one or more teams will form spontaneously to respond to the threat.

Do you think these ants were given direction from another ant in command? Maybe the Queen ant was sending out orders for the teams to organize?

The reality is that no one gave these brave ants an order. Instead, they simply responded to an external interaction. The ants used their natural abilities to form teams capable of providing a solution to combat the threat.

These teams respond to a purpose defined by their society: the survival and prosperity of the colony. It is this objective that will push them to react and defend themselves.

What is a self-organizing team?

In any human organization, like a company, self-organization is based on the same principles as those used by the ants. To achieve the company's goal, the teams decide for themselves the "what, who, and how" needed to make it happen.

The structure, as well as the tactics of these teams, can change at any time to achieve their mission.

This philosophy aims to make the organization more flexible and responsive to change. And this transformation begins in the way teams are managed.

‘The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.’

- Principles behind the Agile Manifesto

This sentence, taken from the principles of the Agile manifesto, introduces the concept of self-organization. We can find justification for this principle in the Scrum Guide:

‘Adaptation becomes more difficult when the people involved are not empowered or self-managing. A Scrum Team is expected to adapt the moment it learns anything new through inspection.’

- Scrum Guide, 2020 edition

If an organization does not allow its teams to be autonomous, this will limit their ability to adapt.

But, as we know, adaptation is a key factor in standing out from the competition. Especially in an unstable, unpredictable, and complex environment.

3 Misconceptions about self-organizing teams

“Having self-organizing teams means no more managers, therefore anarchy!”

Unlike a self-managed team, a self-organizing team always operates with a manager. Through the manager, the organization transmits objectives to the team. Such a manager would adopt a servant leader position here.

The manager aims to facilitate interactions within and outside the team, so that the group can achieve its goal as efficiently as possible.

“A self-organizing team only does what it wants. It’s unmanageable for the organization!”

The organization constantly defines and updates its vision, mission, and goals.

Like any other kind of team, a self-organizing team must be aligned with these elements. Being self-organizing doesn't change the end game of the team.

Therefore, by defining the outcome, the organization always "controls" what the team is working on. The team simply decides how they are going to get there through the output.

The difference between outcome and output can be summarized as follows:

  • The outcome is what the organization seeks to accomplish (the end result). 

  • e.g., increase our user satisfaction metrics by 10%.

  • The output is a concrete way to accomplish the outcome.

  • e.g., set up a live chat module to provide live assistance to our users.

“A self-organizing team cannot be productive!”

Based on neuroscientific studies conducted in 2020, several researchers have demonstrated that autonomy positively impacts productivity. In addition, these studies have also shown that an increase in autonomy improves the mood of individuals at work.

Self-organization goes precisely in this direction. Giving more autonomy to teams makes them more responsible and more committed.

Even if these teams have the freedom to organize work the way they want, this doesn't mean they will be any less productive.

Benefits of Self-Organization

More effective teams

Self-organizing teams are responsible. They decide on the tactics to be implemented to achieve their goals.

This responsibility encourages them to always do better. Self-organizing teams naturally embrace continuous improvement. Therefore the constant need to improve their methods contributes to their effectiveness.

More agile teams

Self-organization makes it possible to react more quickly to change—no need to wait for a superior's approval to adjust your work environment.

Creating the space for adaptation allows the team to welcome change positively, which the team sees as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Team members regularly learn new skills and put them to use for their purpose.

More committed teams

Responsibility, freedom to adapt, continuous improvement, and continuous learning are all values that contribute to increasing the team's autonomy.

The organization trusts these autonomous teams who see their work as a mission.

The feeling of being missionaries makes the team members more motivated and more committed on a daily basis.

Changes within the team

A self-organizing team is multi-disciplinary by nature. To meet its goals, the team needs to have the necessary expertise. Its composition can therefore change at any time depending on the needs identified by the team.

The tasks to be performed are no longer imposed by the manager but decided as a team. For example, one or more people on the team may be responsible for keeping the list of tasks up-to-date. However, these tasks are validated by everyone on the team during a prioritization meeting.

The tasks are generally distributed according to the areas of expertise of each member. If any expertise field is missing, the team can adapt its composition.

Finally, the team adopts a horizontal structure. There is no hierarchy within the team.

To summarize :

  • The team decides on its structure 

  • The team decides on the tasks needed to complete the objective

  • The team decides who will work on these tasks

  • The team has no hierarchy

Changes outside the team

Since the team no longer has a hierarchy, the manager is no longer part of it “as a manager”. 

The manager essentially has the role of facilitator. He/she ensures that the team is aligned with the objective set by the customers or the management. He/she is the interface between the team and the rest of the company.

If the company decides to change the goal of a self-organizing team, the manager will need to facilitate the transition from one goal to another.

How to promote self-organization in your team?

Alignment

Autonomy without alignment often leads to chaos. The team must have a clearly defined purpose fully in agreement with the rest of the company. Several techniques can be used to build and maintain this alignment:

  • Extend the Product vision through the entire organization

  • Measure progress towards goals

  • Improve our understanding of both our users and our business landscape

Limits

Each team must have enough room in which it can self-organize, just like a sandbox! This sandbox represents a set of constraints that the team must know and accept.

Also, the team must know which decisions are in its area of ​​influence and which decisions are not.  The “Delegation Poker” technique, taken from Management 3.0, is a very good way to define these limits.

Responsibility

A multi-disciplinary team does not mean that everyone can do anything they want. It is important that each member of the team still has their own area of ​​expertise.

The same goes for team practices, activities, and meetings. Each event must have a leader.

Trust

Any lack of trust in a team might result in an increased feeling of fear - which could create a toxic work environment.

Luckily, there are ways to increase your team's level of trust:

  • Talk about real matters

  • Recognize successes

  • Don't point fingers at failures

  • Admit that you don't know everything 

  • Organize team-building activities

Transparency

Transparency is the basis of trust within the team.

The company must ensure that the team has simple and permanent access to the information to help it achieve its objectives.

The absence of dependence encourages members to take up initiatives and make decisions. This reinforces the feeling of autonomy.

Transparency must also be present between team members. It is vital to encourage them to share their goals, problems, and questions with the rest of the team.

A great way to give team members the opportunity to share openly with each other is to organize frequent team retrospectives.

Conclusion

Adopting self-organization is an investment for companies and teams that can pay off big in the long run.

This philosophy goes against "Command and Control" practices which, even if they seem reassuring for management, are detrimental to team commitment and productivity.

Today's teams want to be flexible, autonomous and participate in a mission. And that is just what self-organization provides them with.

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