Remember when…

Thinking back to the summers of my grade school years it was very common that, most every weekend, my brother and I would walk to the park several blocks away with our baseball gloves, a couple balls and a bat or two. In the winter we’d walk to the same park but with our skates, pucks and hockey sticks. We’d stay there all day long playing pickup baseball or hockey.

We never had enough kids for full teams, we never had adult supervision, but you know what – we figured it out. We would divide up into teams and loosely follow the rules of baseball or hockey. But since we never had enough people for full teams of either sport we’d make up some additional rules to make it work for us. Sometimes, for example, since we didn’t have enough people if you hit the baseball to right field you were out. No one taught us how to do this, we just figured it out as we went. And mostly it was fun and we’d have a great weekend.

What I didn’t realize at the time, and who in 5th or 6th grade would, is that what we were doing by figuring out how to play together was self-organizing. You may not have had a similar childhood but there are plenty of other examples such as online gaming as part of a team. You figured out that a party of nothing but warriors wasn’t good, you likely needed some healers and magicians as well and that the magicians probably shouldn’t be on point when walking into a dark dungeon. Technically that’s also getting into cross-functional teams but there was certainly some self-organization happening as you were finding solutions to many difficult challenges.

Foundational Agile

While self-organization has been happening since humans began to form groups and occurs throughout nature, it is also a primary Principle of Agile for software development. Just in case we’ve forgotten its importance in increasing the effectiveness of a group.

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

Agile Manifesto, Principle 11

What this means for us is that teams who are allowed to self-organize will emerge the highest value products. They know best how to organize to solve the problems they face in their unique environment. Attempting to manage them from a distance will likely detract from their effectiveness. Move the decision-making closest to those doing the work.

It’s likely been managed out of you

While we all most likely have had positive experiences with self-organization in our past, for some reason many organizations believe they know better. That when we are “at work” we should behave differently.

HR departments create job descriptions that define how people are supposed to behave given their title. They create tools to measure adherence to these specific, rigid definitions. They also define actions and behaviors necessary to get promoted and move to higher levels of pay.

Managers are hired to assign work to people, to tell people how to do their jobs, and to measure them against the rigid yardsticks defined by the HR department. They will also likely add additional measures. Yearly performance evaluations for promotions & raises and performance improvement plans are the typical carrots and sticks used to control the employees.

So it’s not a huge surprise that concepts like self-organization are left behind since those ideas are usually orthogonal to “getting ahead” in the traditional corporate world.

“Tell me how you will measure me, and then I will tell you how I will behave. If you measure me in an illogical way, don’t complain about illogical behavior.

Eli Goldratt

The self-organizing team

In my experience, self-organizing teams are greater than the sum of their pieces.

They surprise themselves in their effectiveness.

They grow together, they laugh together and when they struggle they pick themselves up.

So why are they so rare?

Most traditional organizations, through their HR policies and management style, are their own worst enemy. They literally inhibit self-organization through their own actions and policies, limiting the effectiveness of teams. They create collections of individuals, not teams. Inadvertently I’m sure.

I’ve had many team “leads” ask me for help because they understand the effectiveness of self-organization but will get a bad performance review if they don’t act as “team manager” so they can get that next promotion. Transforming the HR group is beyond the scope of this post. But you’ve certainly discovered a systemic impediment limiting the agility of the organization.

Leading should be fluid

In a team who is self-organizing it’s often difficult to identify the leader. Because there isn’t one. Who is leading changes as the work progresses. Who is leading the efforts on one user story probably won’t be the leader of the next. They share the responsibility and everyone on the team grows their own leadership muscles. They are never left to struggle when the “leader” is on vacation because they are all capable of leading.

Wrapping Up

It’s unfortunate when techniques that we know are effective are discouraged. If you are forming a new team, or on a team that is not self-organizing now, look to your past. Very likely you’ve been part of groups that self-organized when at play. You figured things out and learned how to be more effective without needing someone else to tell you how. Work should be no different. Teams should be able to organize in ways that are most effective for them. It’s also likely to bring more enjoyment when you are “at work”.

Until next time!

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