November 12, 2015

Self-Organizing Teams for the Rest of Us

  —Sorting out self-organization in self-organizing teams.

I was pleased to learn Bertrand Meyer's position on self-organization in Agile! The Good, the Hype and the Ugly. In Meyer's view, self-organization is hype--widely touted ideas that make little difference, good or bad to the resulting software.

I support that a team should be empowered and that empowerment should include the ability to organize their work. I value the input from the people who work with me and I strive to create an environment where people can contribute to their fullest and can provide constructive criticism. It seems foolish and unwise to do otherwise. This is just common sense.

Where self-organization becomes confusing is the discussion on subtle control by asserting influence. [1, 2] It is devilishly difficult to glean what this really means. How might this be achieved in practice? It might involve management using the Socratic method. It might be a combination of completely different approaches.

Meyer points out that the degree of self-organization achieved is dependent upon the skills of the practitioners within the team. An exceptionally experienced team may work without a manager but until you have such a team it is likely to require one.

Meyer takes exception to the notion that self-organizing teams should be applied to the entire software industry. This doesn't imply that self-organization is a poor goal--on some levels self-organization is just common sense. On other levels, it paves the way towards higher performing teams.

Just because many teams will never become the equivalent of a conductor-less orchestra isn't reason to ignore this idea. It is reason to recognize that such a lofty goal may not be achievable and that the costs in trying to achieve it may not be worthwhile. That's good advice.

A few teams I've worked with have struggled with self-organization. It's refreshing to get another perspective on the topic. Especially when this perspective pushes aside the complexity hidden in notions of self-organization and points out that good software can be created without self-organization.

[1] Organizing Self-Organizing Teams presents a theory for promoting self-organization with a team. This theory assigns 6 roles that need to be used, mostly by an Agile Coach who interact with the team.

[2] Self-Organization and Subtle Control: Friends or Enemies? provides a simple introduction to complex adaptive systems, links the theory behind these systems to a software team and contains a couple of models for introducing positive change into a software team.
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