Is Your Team Self-Organizing?

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.

Self-organizing teams are a key part of Agile project management, and though that approach was initially intended for software development, companies are finding that it helps all sorts of teams become more productive. The fact that the approach helps to deliver innovations and improve staff morale is a bonus.

But can teams really be efficient without someone there to crack the whip? You bet they can, and here's how it works.

Self-organizing Teams in Action

Let's clear up one misconception straight away — self-organizing teams are not loose cannons; they’re flexible, responsive teams within the organizational framework. In this type of team, the management decides on the goals and overall deadlines for a project and picks the team members mature enough to work on their own and evaluate the results of their work.

But after that, it's up to the team to decide how best to attain the goals, distribute tasks within the members, plan and estimate their own work at the interim deadlines they set. 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, while a marketing person might be in charge near the end when it's almost ready for delivery.

The main aim of self-organization is to encourage self-actualization of the team members. When the team members can influence the decision-making process and are allowed to adjust their workload at least at some level, they feel more responsibility for the decisions made and, thus, are more motivated to execute them.

Here’s a proof that the concept works. A presentation by F-Secure (PDF) on their change to an Agile cycle found that team members took more ownership of their work and became more accountable, and there was a holistic approach to the product, rather than a focus on individual tasks. In addition, the process of communication and collaboration led to innovation. The same approach works not only for IT, but for other industries as well.

The Role of Management

So what's the role of the management in this situation? In self-organizing teams, managers check in, rather than check up, keeping an eye on scheduled checkpoints and milestones. At those times, the management can evaluate progress and decide if they need to make changes and adjust the project scope and schedules, if necessary. Any management influence on the team is subtle and hands-off, allowing team creativity and productivity to flourish. However, managers have one proactive role to take — providing training for team members on this new way of working.

If a particular team tends to favor conservative thinking, management might replace one team member with someone younger and from a different background to encourage out-of-the-box thinking. The role of management is to select a diverse team that has both the technical skills and the knowledge to succeed, and to subtly monitor the team to make sure that it is working effectively.

For instance, as a manager, you notice that there's one team member whom other team members don't trust because he is relatively inexperienced. Within the scope of a self-organizing team, you can encourage him to pick tasks that are a little beyond his expertise and seed the team with more experienced members who can give him feedback. This will help to resolve any trust issues between experienced and new team members. It also will make the onboarding process much smoother.

Benefits of Self-organizing Teams

There are several advantages to using self-organizing teams. For example, research shows that this type of team responds more easily to challenges and new situations, taking a flexible approach, which often results in innovative solutions. In addition, because the team members feel trusted and respected, they are more motivated to succeed and to honor the commitments they make within the team.

A properly selected team has a good deal of collective wisdom, which can inform the development of products and services. And a cross-functional team also brings perspectives from throughout the organization.

In a traditional project team, every decision needs to be referred upwards to management, but a self-organizing team can make its own decisions, provided it still meets the overall goals. This can work especially well with distributed teams where the approval process across countries, time zones and offices can often be cumbersome.

Imagine that your office is moving. You have the option of trying to plan each detail in advance and telling the team to follow your plan, or allowing team members to move and arrange items to suit their workload and schedule. The second approach is more efficient. If everyone is able to adjust things to their needs, then you are more likely to find an optimal solution for the whole team. In the same way, delivering innovative solutions is more likely if all team members contribute to the process.

The Limits 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 roles of management is to put together a team that has the potential of working, choosing the right people for the job. Here personality means a lot. If people on the team aren’t emotionally mature enough to resolve conflicts or tend to blame each other instead of using constructive criticism, you better change the team or give up this concept.

Team size also is important. Keeping teams in single digits is important, so they don't become unwieldy.

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

There was 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 upper-management felt that they were losing control, and they decided to go back to a traditional team management approach.

It’s hard to implement self-organization just at some 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 company; otherwise, there will be conflicts at the top management level.

In contrast, there are some fields where self-organizing teams work really well. More creative fields, such as design, software development and product development, may find that self-organization enhances creativity, innovation and effectiveness. Do you think self-organizing teams would work in your company?

Also, see the practical tips on how to introduce self-organization in your team in our next post!

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