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Agile, Self-Organization, and Personal Responsibility

17 July 2013

Maria Matarelli
Formula Ink

"How do I behave when I'm in a situation of shared responsibility but I'm not in charge of the person I'm working with and they're not in charge of me?" Christopher Avery opened his keynote presentation at the Agile Indy 2013 conference with this inquiry. This scenario arises quite frequently in an Agile environment, as we encourage self-organization among teams. We ask people to work differently, to self-organize and share responsibility, but what guidance do we give them on how to do this?
We discussed Christopher Avery's "Responsibility Process in an Agile Coach Community of Practice" (here, Responsibility Process) in Chicago and found this to be an incredible foundation for Agile teams. We've found that we are able to apply these concepts to create more awareness and yield increased responsibility and better communication among people on our Agile teams.
"Ninety-nine percent of leadership starts with self-leadership. No one thinks about personal responsibility when things go well. Responsibility has to do with how you respond when things go wrong." -- Christopher Avery
"Without responsibility and trust, the process doesn't matter." -- Sergey Dmetriev
Christopher also asked, "Do you think there is decay of personal responsibility in the world?" He defined leading as taking ownership of a space and mobilizing effective action. "People don't resist change, people resist imposed change, change that is pushed on to them. People choose change all the time."
Walking through the Responsibility Process can create great awareness among your teams in terms of how they respond when facing a problem or uncertainty.

How often do we fall into the stage of denial, where we ignore the existence of something? For example, if a team doesn't complete its planned work for a sprint, does it respond by saying, "Well, we completed most of the work. Those other stories weren't really planned; they were more like stretch stories." Are there times where the team members lay blame and hold each other at fault for causing something or justifying and using excuses for things being the way they are? "If people weren't out of the office, we would have been able to finish everything, but we didn't because of the team members that weren't here for half the sprint." Or, "We would have completed everything planned for this sprint if it weren't for the issues that came up in testing." Do you ever find yourself falling into the trap of shame or obligation, where you lay blame on yourself and feel guilty or do something that you feel you have to do instead of what you want to do? "We must not be a very good team because we can't ever get everything done that we planned" or, "We have to plan that much work because of the business pressures to deliver more." Feelings of shame or obligation may lead to quitting, even though we know that we should constantly reflect upon our environment and inspect and adapt to continuously improve. "Well, we aren't going to finish everything we planned anyway, so it doesn't matter. Let's just do whatever we can; no need to try to complete everything."
If you can recognize when you begin to fall into one of these stages and can identify when you aren't operating from a place of responsibility, then you can begin to act differently and own your ability and power to create, choose, and attract. Rather than falling into a state of denial, blame, justification, shame, obligation, or quitting, leverage retrospectives as an opportunity to reflect on how the team is working and identify ways to adapt while moving forward and act from a place of responsibility.
When you look at responsibility as a mental state you arrive at around challenges, this perspective can lead to feeling free and self-empowered. The keys to responsibility are intention, awareness, and confrontation. We have a decision in all situations to take responsibility and choose how we respond. Christopher Avery shares this approach, along with highlighting that it is our choice whether to:
  • Grow or cope
  • Learn or defend
  • Change or resist
  • Be Agile or fragile
  • Value or waste
  • Be happy or resigned
 After sharing these concepts in our Agile Coaches Community of Practice, we saw opportunity for applying the Responsibility Process, in our own dialogue and while coaching teams, in less than 24 hours -- and just about every day since then. We have seen some teams get stuck in a cycle of "laying blame" and "justifying" or a cycle of "obligation" and "blame." If we can create awareness during these stages when facing a problem or situation, we can then choose to act from a place of responsibility and can model that behavior with others. The Responsibility Process provides a great foundation for self-organization for both new and existing Agile teams.

Printing the Responsibility Process poster and placing it in view of the team can create a visual reminder for everyone to act from a place of responsibility and exemplify personal leadership. Introducing the Responsibility Process to the team and modeling the behavior is a great way to start.

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: 4.8 (9 ratings)


Christopher Avery, CSM, 7/17/2013 6:38:56 PM
Maria, you are a gentle-woman, a scholar, and a helluva coach and speaker. Thanks for being a caring and passionate ambassador for the often-AWOL People and Interactions element of the Agile movement.
Glen Wang, CSM, 7/18/2013 2:54:15 AM
Ninety-nine percent of leadership starts with self-leadership.
People don't resist change, people resist imposed change, change that is pushed on to them. People choose change all the time.
Łukasz Orawski, CSM,CSPO, 9/6/2013 9:19:39 AM
Actually people resit change. Our brains have been evolutionary shaped in a way that we tend to support the status quo and resit change - internal critic. Otherwise coaching wouldn't be so popular these days ;)

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