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Self-Organizing Teams: What and How

7 January 2013

Nitin Mittal

Do you have a self-organizing team? If so, half the battle is already won. But if not, beware: Creating a self-organizing team is far more challenging than we had ever imagined. This is especially true in today's dynamic world, where the focus of building a team can get sidelined due to changing business demands.

Defining self-organizing teams

A group of motivated individuals, who work together toward a goal, have the ability and authority to take decisions and readily adapt to changing demands. Let's look at some important ingredients of a self-organizing team:

  • They pull work for themselves and don't wait for their leader to assign work. This ensures a greater sense of ownership and commitment.
  • They manage their work (allocation, reallocation, estimation, reestimation, delivery, and rework) as a group.
  • They still require mentoring and coaching, but they don't require "command and control."
  • They communicate more with each other, and their commitments are more often to project teams than to the ScrumMaster.
  • They understand requirements and aren't afraid to ask questions to get their doubts clarified.
  • They continuously enhance their own skills and recommend innovative ideas and improvements.

Five essentials of self-organizing teams

  • Competency: Individuals need to be competent for the job at hand. This will result in confidence in their work and will eliminate the need for direction from above.
  • Collaboration: They should work as a team rather than as a group of individuals. Teamwork is encouraged.
  • Motivation: Team motivation is the key to success. Team members should be focused and interested in their work.
  • Trust and respect: Team members trust and respect each other. They believe in collective code ownership and are ready to go the extra mile to help each other resolve issues.
  • Continuity: The team should be together for a reasonable duration; changing its composition every now and then doesn't help. Continuity is essential for the team.

Creating a self-organizing team

Who takes responsibility for making a self-organizing team? Is it the ScrumMaster, who is also focusing on timeline and delivery; or senior management, who are concerned about financials; or the organization itself, which has bigger challenges to ponder?

In fact, it takes a combined effort from all three entities to help a team emerge as self-organizing. The ScrumMaster should act as a coach and ensure that the team gets job-specific training and coaching. He or she is primarily responsible for ensuring a cohesive and soothing working environment, which is a must for the blossoming of a self-organizing team. Coaching individual team members is important so that they understand the principles of self-organizing teams and trust each other. The ScrumMaster should also look at a variety of ways to improve collaboration within the distributed team (using application lifecycle management tools, video conferencing, and so on).

Senior management should ensure that they don't get in the way of the team's work; they need to act as supports rather than distractions. Team goals should be set and individual heroism should be discouraged — it only acts as a block to self-organizing teams. It's essential to allow team members to fail before they're expected to deliver.

The organization as a whole should ensure that it provides the necessary infrastructure, training, and incentive system to keep employees motivated at work. These are hygiene factors that constitute the first barrier to cross before you can expect your team members to be self-organized.

A three-step process: Training, coaching, mentoring

Creating a self-organizing team can be considered a three-step process.

First step: We need to groom employees to get the desired skill set. At the end of this phase, you can assume the team has the capabilities to exhibit self-organizing behaviors. Provide any needed classroom and on-the-job training to make each employee competent in a particular domain/technology. Behavioral training is also helpful.

Second step: Once the team starts working together, adopt a coaching style to see if the members are facing any difficulties. They may require more support and guidance at the beginning. As noted earlier, some indicators of a self-organizing team are: Scrum ceremonies are productive, the team enjoys the work and members help each other, new ideas are forthcoming, and teams are pulling work for themselves. By the end of this phase, you know the team is self-organizing. However, keep your eyes open to observe the team's behavior and provide need-based coaching. This is the phase that will result in innovative ideas and improved results from the team.

Third step: Once the team is in self-organizing mode, the key is to sustain this for the longer run. Assign mentors who can help the team go to the next level. Job rotations can be an important aspect of keeping employees involved and of encouraging continuous learning. As mentioned earlier, a self-organizing team doesn't need "command and control," but it does need coaching and mentoring.

Teams aren't static; they change over time. Building a self-organizing team is an ongoing process, and we're really never done. Whenever a team's composition changes, we need to repeat the whole process.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 3.9 (22 ratings)


Srinath Chandrasekharan, CSP,CSM, 1/7/2013 3:12:26 AM
Good Article. One thing I would like to understand.In an organization like yours, are you able to keep a team together for long ? I think your organization will be similar to mine where teams change, there are issues with attrition, career ambitions , pressures related to project margins, projects closing down and many more which makes it difficult to keep teams together for long. . In such a scenario getting a good team to stay together for a long time is a challenge. Also Agile has probably not reached a critical mass in the sense that if you get a new team member, you can expect him/her to easily gel in. More often than not, you have to start at the basics, if not from scratch. I assume that in a few years when Agile runs in the teams blood, it will be easier to get a self-organizing team. At this time it does not seem so easy , especially in IT service providers like us. Please share your thoughts.
Nitin Mittal, CSP,CSM, 1/7/2013 9:33:04 PM
@Srinath, if you can keep together a team for at least 2 releases (assuming each release is 3-6 month with 6-10 Sprints per release) it should be good enough. Keeping team together is always a challenge specially in service organizations. Few resources would stick to the project for longer run, whereas few may want to explore new projects/opportunities. Remember, job rotation is also a factor in one of the essentials of self-organizing teams (motivation). Ideally rotation plan should be in place (Which Senior Management should take care) such that teams balance is maintained and at the same time team members aspirations are also fulfilled.

As far as managing new resource in your team, we need to go through 3-step process which I highlighted above. First step is to ensure he gets sufficient training, exposure, hands-on experience to become self-organizing. We can't expect a new resource to exhibit all characteristics of self-organizing from day 1.
ATUL KUMAR VERMA, CSM, 11/7/2014 12:30:55 PM
Nice article, I must say.
I have a quick question here. What if we have to transform an existing team (having lets say 2 Senior developer, 2 developers and 2 Junior developers) which used to follow organizational hierarchy where Senior developers and Project manager used to take all the decision and delegate work.

How to change the mindset of team like this and transform it to self-organized team???

As per my understanding and experience, one of the prerequisite for making a self-organized team that one should choose team members of matching skill-set, equal experience and not seniors and juniors so that there will not be any discrimination between team members and they can do work together as all will be having same kind of mindset.

Can you highlight other prerequisites too.
Krishnakumar Chinnappachari, CSD,CSM,CSPO, 11/14/2014 1:53:55 AM
Atul, as Nitin mentioned its a three-step process: Training, coaching, mentoring. Again, it will be challenging to change mindset of individuals who were used to traditional approach. Through continuous coaching and observation, we can slowly change the mindset. This may take couple of releases (each release may be spread across multiple sprints), depending on the scrum practices (release planning, sprint planning) followed in your organization. There is another article in this forum (The servant leader by Sandeep Lad), in which Atul talks about Adaptive Leadership, this will help coaching tips.

Adaptive leadership is dependent on team stages-

Team stage Forming, Leadership - High Directive Low Supportive (Lead the team)
Team stage Storming, Leadership - High Directive, High Supporting (Coach the team)
Team Stage Norming, Leadership- Low Directive, High Supportive (Servant Leadership stage 1)
Team Stage Performing, Leadership- Low Directive, Low Supportive (Servant Leadership stage 2/delegate)

So to me if you have a new team you probably want to be careful doing servant leadership- there is no fun see a new team make mistakes and fail - and it may cost you your job

If you are with a team that has been together for a few releases and settled you want to try your hands as servant leadership but be ready to change shoes in case your team needs you.
Irina Beregovich, CSM, 10/1/2015 4:41:43 PM
Excellent article! A self-organizing team is an ever-evolving organism. The longer the team stays and works together, though, the sooner it will become a cohesive entity.

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