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Agile Teams Are Self-Organized and Self-Directed — Not!

12 April 2016

Vijay Kulkarni
CA Technologies

The fact that Agile teams are not self-organizing and self-directing is contrary to the general understanding of what an Agile team is. I give a different perspective to this thinking, which, in my humble opinion, has its own benefits.

We are not born to be self-directed

Starting at a young age, we are taught what to do and what not to do. Even in schools and colleges, students are not left to their own will. Rather, they are guided, instructed, and monitored at every step of the way. When these individuals get into jobs that function in the Agile world, if we were to ask them to be self-managed, self-directed, and self-organized, they would be overwhelmed by these expectations. But we don't lower these expectations. In fact, we expect the teams to behave in more of a mature way and ask them to make decisions that sound right for them.

Complications snowball for cases in which a team has transformed from a Waterfall model to Agile. You might have team members who always vied for positions of influence and authority but now realize that in an Agile setup the rest of the team members are being treated equally. The Agile school of thought has been interpreted to say that there is no set-apart quality assurance in the team; everyone does everything. In this model, either the quality assurance team or the development team can be sidetracked based on the nature of the project.

Friction, confusion, and underperformance

Peter Drucker, the man who invented modern management, once said, "Only three things happen naturally in organizations: friction, confusion, and underperformance. Everything else requires leadership." Consequently, every team will have friction — some of it is detrimental, but most friction is healthy and occurs in a controlled fashion. Confusion is bound to happen no matter how much open communication and good collaboration is practiced in the organization. Underperformance occurs when there are incompetent and unfit people on the teams who are simply unmotivated individuals just trying to get through each month, or people who are not influenced to perform at their best.

Stages of team development

As we know, every team goes through four stages in their life cycle. In the first stage, the teams begin to form by coming together for the common objective to deliver value as part of a project. The team then goes through storming, whereby different ideas, approaches, and experiences from different individuals on the team are put into practice and team members agree, disagree, contradict, argue, compromise, and maybe even call each other names. Next is the stage when the team starts to normalize. Individual differences are resolved, and team members see through the suggestions or opinions of others to arrive at well-married decisions. They understand their strengths and weaknesses. Finally, the stage that every team is expected to reach is the performing stage when, irrespective of the boundaries, constraints, and shortfalls, the team performs its best.

During all of the above stages, the team does not stand by itself to deliver projects. Yes, teams deliver — mostly successfully. Which leads us to the leadership role, be it manager, team leader, ScrumMaster, or the coach. Agile says that there is no manager nor team leader, only the ScrumMaster or coach who serves the team. So be it. But that philosophy alone does not help teams to become self-managed and self-directed. There is a need for the teams to be trained, influenced, directed, and superficially managed so that they can become self-directed and self-managed. The leader (ScrumMaster, coach, manager, or team lead) has the responsibility to coach the teams in that direction. Teams initially need support and guidance as they come to grips with the project scope, tools, and the forming and storming aspects of the project. Then, when they are in the norming phase, the leader can introduce the goals of self-organization and self-direction as long-term objectives for the group.

Saying that the Agile teams are self-organized and self-directed does not help new teams perform at their best. Self-organization and self-direction should become the goal of any Agile organization, and that aim should be measured and guided by able leadership. The leader must show how they come together as a team, stand as a team, deliver as a team, and, most important, go through any kind of changes on their path "as a team." Team members must understand what decisions are being made as a team, how those decisions affect the entire organization, and how they are adding value to the ecosystem. When all of this happens, the team will have become self-managing and self-directing. Hence, self-organization and the self-direction are the end goals, not the beginning for Agile teams.

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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