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Scrum Changes: Self-Organisation vs Self-Management

Previous versions of Scrum (prior to 2020) referred to Development Teams as “self-organising”. Team members themselves would choose who amongst them should do the work and how to do it.

With a greater focus on the Scrum Team, the 2020 version emphasises a self-managing Scrum Team, choosing who, how, and what to work on, but what does this mean in practice?

What is Self-Management?

Self-management is part of a wider trend in 21st century contemporary ways of working. Dan Pink (Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us) highlights that the research shows it’s autonomy, mastery and purpose that motivates 21st century knowledge workers. Autonomy, as described by Dan Pink, is the urge to direct one’s own life. Without the ability to control what, when, and how we work, and who we work with, he argues, we’ll never be completely motivated to complete a task.

Without the ability to control what, when, and how we work, and who we work with, he argues, we'll never be completely motivated to complete a task.
Dan Pink
Dan Pink
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Differences to traditional management, including project management

According to John P. Kotter, in his book A Force for Change: How Leadership Differs From Management (1990), managers are responsible for setting and achieving the goals of the organisation through planning, organising, directing , and controlling. They’re ultimately hired and given formal authority to direct the activity of others to achieve an organisation’s goals.

Project Managers have similar responsibilities. They’re responsible for organising and controlling projects by selecting people to do the project work and ensuring it’s done properly and on time (PRINCE2, 2020). 

Self-managing teams, though, do these activities themselves. They’re cross-functional, meaning the members have all the skills necessary to create and deliver value, and decide internally who does what, when, and how. With this level of autonomy, the empirical evidence shows a correlation to increased performance and engagement as well as more sensitivity to failure when people have more independence at work. Ultimately, autonomy leads to increased employee performance and engagement, but employees still need a manager’s support during difficult situations. Managers can’t offer autonomy and disappear. They provide a connection for escalation of issues out of the influence of the team. Ultimately, this means when teams hit a roadblock to delivering value, their manager becomes the path of escalation to have the impediment addressed and removed.

Self-Management isn't chaos

David Marquet (Turn the Ship Around, 2012) highlights “if you’re picturing a lot of people out there doing crazy things and a bunch of arrows going in a bunch of different directions you have the wrong picture”.

Self-management requires managers to set rules and sets of constraints and expectations on how the team operates. Frameworks like Scrum provide leaders with a proven set of boundaries and accountabilities so that self-organisation is effective and responsibilities and expectations are transparent to everyone.

Managers must become leaders

Every executive would agree that there’s never enough time in the day to do the strategic work that needs doing. Rather than focussing on an organisation’s vision and the strategy to get them there, many are forced into meeting after meeting to make decisions that could realistically be delegated to teams. Marquette highlights that self-management improves time to decision making, ownership, and creates accountability at all levels. 

Marquette ultimately imagines a workplace where everyone engages and contributes their full intellectual capacity, a place where people are healthier and happier because they have more control over their work—a place where everyone is a leader. His central thesis is that managers must become good leaders and focus on embedding greatness in others through:

  • Spending time having conversations about intent.
  • Being tolerant of different approaches.
  • Helping people come up with solutions on their own.
  • Making “thinking” safe.
  • Clarifying common language – together.
  • Defining roles and processes.
  • Understand that coercion does not work.
  • Establishing and nurturing a culture of transparency, open feedback, and sharing. 
  • Making sure people feel part of a collective “we” rather than a distant “they”.
  • Not sacrificing long-term success for short-term wins.

Scrum's 2020 direction - a win for teams and the organisation

Since the Agile Manifesto (2001), its signatories felt very strongly about empowering teams to get the job done. Steve Denning continues to reinforce this message through his Law of the Small Team.

Build [organisations] around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
- 12 Principles of the Agile Manifesto

By self-managing, the Scrum Team can now be responsible for all product-related activities from stakeholder collaboration, verification, maintenance, operation, experimentation, research and development, and anything else that might be required. Scrum’s 2020 changes help organisations to structure and empower teams to manage their own work. The win for organisations is a stronger pathway to reduce red tape  through explicit boundaries.

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