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Ownership and Self-Organizing Teams

25 June 2013

One of the principles of the Agile Manifesto is, "Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done."

The general belief is that a self-organizing team has enhanced ability to produce high-quality working software efficiently. But how often are we able to create such an environment, where the teams are motivated and take full accountability for the work they do? How often do we see high-performing teams?

Is it only the Scrum team that's responsible for self-organization? What is the role of management in developing self-organizing teams that feel a sense of ownership and responsibility?

My experience with self-organizing teams is that two essential ingredients are necessary for their success:
  1. Management trusts and gives freedom to the Scrum teams to take full ownership of their projects.
  2. The Scrum teams take that freedom and use it to foster a culture of autonomy that enhances their ability to become a high-performing team.
Let's talk about scenarios in which one of these ingredients is missing, and how that impacts a team's self-organization.
Scenario 1: The Scrum team isn't ready to take ownership.
Management gives responsibility and ownership to a Scrum team and trusts it to deliver projects. However, the Scrum team is not ready to take on that ownership.

Possible causes for this behavior include:
  • The team is used to command and control, and it has a hard time making decisions that normally were taken by the manager.
  • The team consists of new members and is still in a formative stage, struggling to make collective team decisions.
  • Heroism is prevalent, which makes it difficult for the team to make consensus-based decisions rather than specialists-driven decisions.
  • Each team member relies on the others to do the work, due to competency problems or complacency (someone else will take care of it).
  • Everyone is too comfortable doing their individual pieces of the overall work.
Experienced Agile coaches or ScrumMasters embedded in the team can help with the initial transition to self-organization and help the team members cultivate Agile values and principles. Focusing on the positives of the team's dynamics, and making small improvements to the team's work, does encourage the team to make collective decisions and learn which activities provide the foundation for self-organization.
Scenario 2: Management isn't ready to give ownership to the team.
When management isn't willing to give control to the Scrum team (even if it claims that it's doing so), we have to look at possible reasons why:
  • Management is not aware of Agile principles and the importance of teamwork, and it sees no value in giving control to the team.
  • Management fears the loss of the status quo, feeling themselves to be less empowered if decision making is left up to the team.
  • A culture of micromanagement is deeply rooted within the organization.
Changes in HR policies that include clearly describing the role of managers can be an important step in such cases, so that managers don't feel insecure about their futures in an Agile organization.

The team, for its part, can be proactive, taking initiative and delivering frequently with high-quality software, to influence change in the mind-set of management.

Again, an Agile coach can help management understand the importance of self-organization in Agile teams. Such a coach can support managers in their transition from a command-and-control role to embracing a a servant-leadership attitude.

Management and Scrum teams need to support each other in this journey. It is important for both to succeed in building a high-performing, self-organizing culture within the organization.

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.

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