Helping Teams Self Organize

You all know I am a huge Mike Cohn fan. Here is his latest blog article about self-organizing teams. If you don't follow him or Mountain Goat Software, I highly recommend. I hope this helps you in your Agile journey.


From Mike Cohen of Mountain Goat Software: I’m often asked a question that is impossible to answer. It’s something like, “What camera settings should I use when filming Bigfoot?” That question is impossible to answer because Bigfoot doesn’t exist. (Or does he?) It is similarly impossible to answer, “What do I do when a team won’t self organize?” This can’t be answered because a team that is allowed to self organize will self organize. A team may, for example, decide its former tech lead must approve all designs or will review all code before it’s checked in. In most cases, these would not be good results of a team self organizing. But the team has self organized. I think of it similar to the school dances I attended when I was 13 and 14. We boys would stand against the wall with only a brave few venturing to ask someone to dance. We’d self organized. Not well, but we had. Perhaps the real question I’m often asked, then, is what to do when a team self organizes in a sub-optimal manner. Here are three things to try if you suspect your team has organized suboptimally. First, refuse to step in and make decisions for the team. Some teams are reluctant to embrace self organization. When told they have authority over how work gets done, these teams will often wait for someone to make decisions for them. When you see this happen, resist the temptation to make the decision. Either wait silently for them to decide or reiterate that the decision is theirs and you’ll support them in whatever they decide. Second, amplify or dampen differences among team members. Imagine a team of clones. How clones decide to organize around their work doesn’t matter because each close is identical in all ways to all other clones. Our team members are not clones; there are differences among them. These differences include technical expertise, domain knowledge, power, gender, race, education, connections to others in the company, problem-solving approach, and so on. The types and degrees of these differences influence how a team self organizes. When you suspect a team has not organized itself well, amplify or dampen differences among team members. For example, consider a team composed of individuals who each favor quick decision making, sometimes to the detriment of making good decisions. Look for an opportunity to add a team member with a different decision-making style. Third, praise appropriate behavior. Praising appropriate behavior will encourage more of that behavior. If a team member makes a decision that would have been left to a manager in the pre-agile past, praise that team member. More importantly, offer that praise regardless of whether the decision turns out to be the right one. Perhaps add a short discussion regarding how it might be possible to make a better decision next time. But first you’ll want to commend the person (publicly, if possible) for going beyond traditional responsibilities. Without self-organization, teams remain overly directed by managers. This leads to a team feeling less ownership of (and attachment to) its goals. Self-organizing teams move more quickly due to a greater sense of investment in their work. Getting a team to embrace self-organizing frees managers for other work and benefits the organization and the job satisfaction of team members, enabling the team to succeed with agile, Mike

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