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Self-Organizing Doesn’t Mean Out of Control

Updated: Jan 28, 2022

Here is another article that resonated with me from Mike Cohn of Mountain Goat Software. The term "self-organizing" instills fear in some people. I specifically address this with a slide a discussion in my ICAgile Agile Fundamentals course. Self-organized teams have gotten a bad rap for being chaotic, rioting, and leaderless. If this is no one in charge, how will the team function? This does not have to be the case. Self-organized teams take direction; they have authority for whom performs the work. Take a few minutes to read Mike Cohn's article "Self-Organizing Doesn’t Mean Out of Control."


Until last year, Scrum teams were referred to as self-organizing. In the 2020 Scrum Guide, the term was changed to be self-managing. I prefer self-organizing as it was the term originally used in the first Scrum article ever. But both terms can stir up fears of a team being left to their own devices and either being out of control or choosing to head in the wrong direction. Fortunately, that is neither what it means nor how it goes. When establishing self-organizing/self-managing teams, subtle control and influence can still be exerted on a team. A self-organizing team is not one that is just turned loose and allowed to decide what to work on. Management’s actions can alter the behavior of a self-organizing team. This can be done, for example, by choosing who is on the team. If management is concerned that a team is rushing to make decisions, an appropriate response could be to add someone to the team with a more deliberate, slower decision-making style. Self-organizing teams do not have control over team membership. Teams that do are known as self-designing teams, and that’s an additional level of authority granted to a team. Similarly, a self-organizing/self-managing team is not free to pick its own goal. When management says to “Build us an ecommerce website,” the team cannot decide to instead build a video game. A team who can is commonly referred to as a self-governing team. Self-organizing teams are ones with authority over how they perform their work. Also, they monitor or track their own progress rather than having a manager monitor them. Within those parameters, there are many things managers and leaders (including a Scrum Master and product owner) can do to help or guide a self-organizing team, such as:

  • Establishing team-based rewards and incentives

  • Creating the proper physical workspace—or encouraging the right virtual collaboration these days

  • Soliciting (or encouraging the team to solicit) feedback from different groups and at the right frequency

  • Creating a culture that encourages experimentation, or is at least tolerant of it

  • Putting the right people on the team ​

So don’t be afraid of allowing a team to self-organize. You are still able to influence how a team organizes. That influence should be chosen to help the team succeed with agile, Mike 1140 US Hwy 287, Suite 400-108 Broomfield, CO 80020 Copyright Mountain Goat Software All Rights Reserved Want to customize which emails we send you? Click here to change your email preferences or, if you want to unsubscribe from everything, click here. Did someone forward you this message? Click to subscribe.

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