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How to Survive and Thrive on Self-Organizing Teams

21 July 2017

Have you ever been on a self-organizing team that had a hard time learning to work together well? I hope you haven’t, but probably all of us have had that experience.
If you’re on a team that isn’t working together as well as it could, or a team that’s just starting out, there are tactics you can use to help yourself get through the forming and storming phases of group development, establish group norms, and perform well.
I’m going to talk to you about three tactics in particular that you can use to survive and thrive on self-organizing teams. These are tactics I’ve learned in my work as a mediator. When I’m mediating, I have to be able to quickly assess and understand my clients, figure out how to communicate effectively with them, and create strategies to get them to negotiate successfully with each other. The tactics I use can help you assess and understand team members and make it easier for you to participate in the process of the team self-organizing successfully.
Here are three of my tactics for surviving and thriving on self organizing-teams: 1) Be patient, 2) accept ambiguity, and 3) solve interpersonal problems incrementally.

Be patient

The most important tactic for surviving and thriving on self-organizing teams is to be patient. And by “be patient,” I mean be patient with yourself, be patient with others, be patient with the process. Be patient when you’re wondering how the team will get through the forming and storming phases of group development.
The best way to be patient is to breathe. Breathe deeply, fully, and repeatedly. I know a lot of self-help writers say this, especially in the United States where I am, but it does work.
For example, I mediated a particular case with a client whose apparent attitude toward a vulnerable population really bothered me for personal reasons. I found him hard to work with. But I breathed, and reminded myself that I’m a experienced and professional mediator, and I know what I’m doing. So I worked with this client and the other party, and I facilitated their coming to a resolution they were both happy with. What’s more, the training mediator who’d been observing me couldn’t tell how hard it had been for me to work with this particular client!
Another way to be patient is to take a break, if you can. Go for a short walk. Go get another cup of coffee, or a chai, or a Red Bull. Work on a spike you really want to work on.
Yet another way to be patient is to promise yourself a reward for being patient. For example, you could promise yourself a bar of gourmet chocolate or some other sweet that you like. As another example, one reward I give myself is that if the building I’m in allows access to the roof, I go up on the roof and enjoy the view for five minutes.
Whatever reward you promise yourself, be sure you give yourself the reward, even if being patient wasn’t as hard as you thought it’d be.

Accept ambiguity

The second tactic for surviving and thriving on self-organizing teams is to accept ambiguity. Accept ambiguity in what people mean by what they say and do, accept ambiguity in not knowing how the framework works (if you’re new to it), accept ambiguity in how the team will ever work together well.
A good way to accept ambiguity is to remind yourself that you don’t necessarily know what someone’s intent is. If something they say sounds rude or unprofessional, except ambiguity and assume that you’ve misunderstood. If they do something that seems odd or strange, again, accept ambiguity. This is especially important if you’re working with people from different cultures, countries of origin, and/or ethnicities from your own.
For example, when I took the Certified ScrumMaster® training, one of the people on my team kept explaining things to me over and over. At first I wondered if he thought I was stupid, and I was ready to be insulted. But if I’d let myself feel insulted, I would have had a harder time working with him during the class, and I wouldn’t have gotten as much out of it.
As a mediator, I’ve observed many reasons why people explain things multiple times. Sometimes people are trying to create the most perfect explanation; sometimes they’re used to an overlapping conversational style and are waiting for you to tell them you’ve understand them; sometimes they’re sure their explanation is perfect and if they repeat it you’ll understand.
With that teammate of mine in the ScrumMaster training, I deduced that he was waiting for me to give some indication that I understood what he was saying. That moment passed, but if later on in the training he had again explained something to me repeatedly, I could have quickly said, “Thank you, I understand.”

Solve interpersonal problems incrementally

My third tactic is to solve interpersonal problems incrementally. If you’re having a problem with one of your team members, and you don’t know the team member well, try an incremental approach to figuring out how to solve the problem.
For example, suppose you’re doing an all-team backlog refinement session, and one person has nothing to say. Here are some incremental steps you can take to try to resolve the problem and get your team member to start contributing.

Step A: Observe

The first step is to observe the team member. Notice whether the team member looks nervous, shy, aloof, angry; whatever emotion is on their face.
Notice whether the team member starts to speak but others interrupt. Notice whether everyone else includes the team member in the conversation the same way they do the people who are talking.
By observing, you gather data about how to proceed. Also, if you wait, the team member might start contributing on their own.

Step B: Do something minimal

The next step is to something minimal, something that doesn’t call out any one person.
For example, you could suggest that you go around the circle and everyone contributes one thought about pointing the story you’re talking about, or refining it into smaller stories. This will make it natural that the team member should contribute.
Something else you could try is to make sure that you make eye contact with the silent team member is much as you make eye contact with everyone else on the team.
By trying something minimal, you may solve the problem simply and easily. That’s less work for you, and it doesn’t call out anyone in a way that might be embarrassing.
Try step B at least three times, ideally spread out over at least two meetings or ceremonies.

Step C: Do something direct

The next incremental step is to do something that’s more direct. This would involve something that is clearly but professionally addressing the problem with the person.
For example, you could ask the team member directly what their opinion is about the issue you’re talking about. Make sure you give the team member plenty of time to respond. A good guideline is to wait three times as long as you think you should; it’ll seem like forever, but it won’t be.
Or, if you notice that other team members often start speaking before this team member is finished, you could ask the other team members to hold for a moment so the team member in question can finish.
By being direct — but still professional and courteous — you’re more clearly requesting the behavior that will help the team.

Step D: Talk to the team member directly

The next incremental step is to do something that explicitly addresses the problem, but in private.
For example, if you happen to see this team member when there’s no one else from your team around, you could tell your team member that you notice that they don’t speak up in meetings and you wish they would contribute. That may be enough to encourage them to start contributing. Or they may tell you about some impediment to their speaking up, an impediment you could help with.

Step E: Talk to your ScrumMaster or your coach

If, at this point, the team member still doesn’t contribute, you should probably bring it up with your ScrumMaster or coach. Chances are, they may already be dealing with the problem.

Why not go directly to Step D?

You might be wondering, “Why not go directly to Step D, and talk to the person directly?” The reason I suggest starting out with something minimal is that if you don’t know someone, you don’t know how they’ll react. If you offend or embarrass someone early on, even if you don’t mean to, that will make working on the team uncomfortable.


Survive and thrive on self-organizing teams

Being on a self-organizing team as it’s going through the process of self-organizing can be hard. If your team has a difficult time organizing itself, you might wonder if you can do anything to help.

When you’re on a self-organizing team, make sure to be patient, accept ambiguity, and solve interpersonal problems incrementally. If you use these tactics, you can survive and thrive on a self-organizing team.

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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