What Is a Self-Organizing Team?

Want more motivation, better performance, and better delivery? Then perhaps it's time to tune into one of the hottest trends in project management: self-organizing teams.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at self-organizing teams, how they work, and how Agile workflows can be improved by implementing self-organization.

Introducing Agile self-organizing teams

Self-organizing teams are a key part of Agile project management

Though self-organization was initially intended for software development, companies have found that it helps all sorts of teams become more productive. Any product innovations or boost in staff morale is a bonus.

Research from McKinsey found that smaller teams using Agile methodologies and self-organization in their enterprise operating models were better able to handle the impact of COVID-19 on their business. Where non-Agile teams struggled, Agile teams were able to seamlessly deliver their predefined project requirements.

But can Agile self-organizing teams be productive without the presence of external leadership? You bet they can, and here's how it works.

How do self-organizing teams work? 

Let's clear up one misconception straight away. Self-organizing teams are not loose cannons; they're flexible, responsive teams that operate within the organizational framework and who understand what is strategic capacity planning. Here’s how self-organizing teams function.

Strong sense of ownership

There’s a strong sense of ownership built into self-organizing teams in business. Project goals, milestones, and overall deadlines are decided upon by the management, while the team independently handles the day-to-day operations.

These teams also use the principle of self-organization to help them distribute tasks amongst themselves, set interim deadlines, and decide the project goal roadmap.

Strong individual competencies

In the concept of self-organization, team members are encouraged to work according to their individual competencies. Since there is no designated manager or leader, members trust their own project management skills and those of their team to deliver the required deliverables.

Team leadership is not set in stone but adjusts to meet the needs of the project. For example, if a company is creating a new product, the product developer may take the lead at the start of the process. A marketing professional might take charge near the end when the product is almost ready for delivery.

Encourages self-actualization  

The main aim of self-organization is to encourage the self-actualization of the team members.

By setting their own job responsibilities and deciding how to achieve their goals, team members feel more motivated to execute their duties.

Boosts organizational innovation

Here's proof that self-organization works. Research from Deloitte confirms that Agile self-organizing teams are more customer-focused and responsive, delivering better performance outcomes.

When employees own their job responsibilities and become more accountable, they tend to take a more holistic approach to their work. Instead of focusing on smaller tasks, they communicate and collaborate with their team. This can boost organizational innovation — not only in IT but in other sectors as well.

Role of a manager in self-organizing teams

So, what's the role of the management in this situation? In self-organizing teams, managers check in rather than check up and keep an eye on scheduled checkpoints and milestones.

At those times, management can evaluate progress and decide if they need to make changes and adjust the project scope and schedules.

Any management influence is subtle and hands-off, allowing team creativity and productivity to flourish. However, managers have a proactive role in training team members in this new way of working.

For example, if a specific team favors conservatism, management may consider introducing a younger team member with a different background to encourage out-of-the-box thinking.

Management must select a diverse team with the technical skills and knowledge to succeed, then subtly monitor the group to ensure its smooth operation.

For example, there may be a relatively inexperienced employee who is yet to gain the trust of the entire team. If that person is made a part of a self-organizing team, they can be advised to take up stretch tasks that are a little beyond their scope of expertise.

Experienced members can then guide them towards better performance, resolving any trust issues between them while easing the onboarding process for newer employees.

Benefits of self-organizing teams

There are several advantages to using self-organizing teams. For example, research shows that self-organizing teams respond more efficiently to challenges and new situations, taking a flexible approach that results in more innovative solutions.

Since the team members feel trusted and respected, they are more motivated to succeed and honor their commitments within the team.

Increase in team productivity

In a traditional project team, every decision needs to be referred to the management. However, a self-organizing team can make its own decisions, provided it still meets the overall goals.

Such situations can work especially well with distributed teams, where the approval process is stretched across countries, time zones, and offices.

Faster problem-solving

The absence of a manager helps team members think creatively without the fear of any judgment or rebuttal.

With greater levels of teamwork and collaboration, they can use premade templates to quickly brainstorm diverse ideas, iterate faster, and come to a common solution.

Focus on consistent improvements

Members of self-organizing teams are focused on obtaining opportunities to grow their skills and seek to enhance their individual and team outcomes.

A properly selected team has a good deal of collective wisdom that influences the development of products and services. Cross-functional teams also bring diverse perspectives from across the organization.

Greater focus on quality

Imagine that your organization is moving offices. You could plan each detail for your team to follow — alternatively, you could allow team members to make their own plan for moving that suits their workload and schedule.

The second approach is more efficient. If everyone can adjust things to their needs, you are more likely to find an optimal solution for the whole team. Similarly, delivering innovative solutions for your customers is more likely if all team members contribute to the process.

Teams can produce high-quality work by taking customer experience and feedback seriously and creating products that are more aligned with market needs.

Better employee satisfaction 

Everyone likes having control. When employees can choose their work schedules, project timelines, and tasks, they typically have higher motivation levels.

Lesser management presence also gives individual members the freedom to complete their tasks in their own style, enhancing accountability and team performance.

How to build a self-organizing team

Wondering how easy is it to set up self-organizing teams in your company?

The onset of the pandemic has triggered a 125% rise in remote work. As a result, team dynamics, structures, and leadership roles are rapidly evolving. Change is the only constant in business today.

A larger organization can be managed effectively by breaking it down into smaller, nimbler self-organizing teams. Here's how you can create Agile self-organizing teams in your company:

  1. Identify the right team members across departments who are reasonably knowledgeable about the project and aware of the deliverables
  2. Make sure they are capable of proactively completing their job responsibilities and duties without the need for a manager
  3. Feel free to rebalance your team or move members into another group to optimize team sizes and ensure peak productivity

Before starting the process of creating self-organizing teams, ensure that all the team members complete the following:

Training

Create a robust framework for training self-organizing teams in the key hard and soft skills required to function effectively.

Hard skills training

Since team members are from cross-functional departments, some may not be completely up-to-date on the project requirements. Introducing hard skills training for specific team members can help them understand how to undertake their job roles efficiently.

Hard skills training can develop the required competencies in your team members. It also delivers the right context to perform tests that will pave the way for future enhancements.

Soft skills training

More than 97% of employers confirm that soft skills are equally or more important than hard skills at work. 

A comprehensive training program can help team members understand what a self-organizing team is and how it works. Once they are clear with the basic framework, they'll be able to practice the key principles of commitment, confidence, communication, and collaboration in their teams.

Coaching

Coaching in organizational settings can be an invaluable step in developing employees across a multitude of skills. 

Over 80% of coached employees report a significant increase in their self-confidence — what’s more, about 70% reported an improvement in their work performance after undergoing coaching in the workplace.

After completing training, deploy a coach for every self-organizing team. Instead of micro-managing everything, a coach will support and offer guidance as and when required.

Gradually, team members will start taking ownership of their work, building trust, and collaborating seamlessly. Over time, the self-organizing teams will be able to function independently and a coach's presence may no longer be required.

Mentoring

Even as team members start collaborating with each other, they may still require the support of a mentor. Since they will be growing in their respective roles, the presence of a mentor can add balance and point their efforts in the right direction.

Mentoring self-organizing teams will encourage them to grow together, stay motivated, and take accountability for their individual roles.

Limitations of self-organizing teams

One thing to note is that putting together a self-organizing team isn't like assembling something from a model kit. One of the key roles of company management is to assemble a team that can work together.

Even though self-organizing teams are a key principle in the Agile Manifesto, adopting the Agile mindset and methodologies across the organization may not be easy. Implementing self-organization in business may give rise to a few challenges such as:

Failure to adapt 

It's important to know where self-organizing project teams work and where they don't. Organizations with a strict hierarchy, such as government bodies and banks, may find it difficult to self-organize.

Take for example a bank that tried to implement self-organization at some level in one of its departments. At first, things went smoothly and the team was very productive. But then the top management felt that they were losing control and decided to go back to a traditional team management approach.

It's hard to implement self-organization at a few levels. It has to be a cultural change that permeates the whole company. Before taking this approach, it's best to think through the complete decision-making process in your organization; otherwise, there will be conflicts at the top management level.

Challenges in managing different individuals 

In self-organizing teams, personality matters. If people on the team aren't emotionally mature enough to resolve conflicts or blame each other instead of taking constructive criticism, you’re better off changing the team or giving up this concept completely.

Having an ideal team size is also important. Keeping teams in single digits is crucial so they don't become unwieldy.

Lack of personal accountability

Since a single person is not designated as team manager, all team members participate in meetings and discussions. On an ongoing basis, this can be quite disruptive for individual and team productivity.

As self-organizing teams operate as one entity, it’s impossible to make one person accountable for a certain task. The perceived lack of accountability can be a serious issue in bigger projects as stakeholders will not be able to pinpoint any specific step, task, or person as the cause of an error.

How to manage your self-organized team with Wrike

In this new normal, the speed of change can be overwhelming. Organizations need to deploy an operating model that can keep up with the dynamic business environment and changing business needs.

Many companies are adopting Agile ways of working to prevent and predict delays, become proactive, and enhance their project deliveries. Using dynamic project management software like Wrike can help teams optimally organize work and execute all their projects seamlessly.

Start a free two-week trial of Wrike and use the self-organization tips outlined above to create self-organizing teams that can get work done with less stress and more structure.

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