Self-organisation. 5 things you should be doing to support agile teams.

In the face of disruptive change, the ability for executives to mobilise action is paramount. Self-organisation is key – the ability to provide a goal and trust that people have the knowledge and skills to achieve it. This type of self-organisation is advantage of the agile organisation. As far back as its creation, the Agile Manifesto and Scrum framework have asked executives, managers, and leaders to give teams “the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done”. 

Many organisations, though,  still cling to traditional ideas about managing people. If managers can’t see their employees working, they assume they won’t be. This type of culture is the biggest hurdle to teams and indeed whole organisations becoming truly agile – to pivot and adapt successfully in the face of disruptive change.

How do you let go of old ways of working and start to promote a culture that enables people to collectively and reliably get the job done without devolving into micromanagement?

Don’t remove impediments. Let them do it.

People often jump to the conclusion that an agile leader’s role is to remove impediments by solving problems for the team, to clear a path to expedite delivery. This happens more and more when technical leads become Scrum Masters. Their tendency is to roll up their sleeves and solve the problem. The best way to promote self-organisation is to facilitate the teams’ resolution of their own problems. Liberating Structures by McCandless and Lipmanowicz provide an effective mechanism for collective brainstorming in any environment – from strategy to delivery – and supporting people from executives to delivery teams to understand the nature of the problems they face and solve the problems themselves.

Ultimately, only when an impediment is outside the sphere of control of the team, only then should it then be escalated to a Scrum Master and up the hierarchy. An agile executive’s own backlog typically contains impediments to the delivery of value. 

Be a servant leader

There are many misconceptions about servant leadership. It doesn’t turn an executive into a “servant” to teams. It doesn’t turn the organisational hierarchy upside down so that leadership serve teams. Working from a need to serve doesn’t imply an attitude of servility in the sense that the power lies in the hands of staff or that leaders would have low-esteem. Servant leadership manifests as the responsibility of leaders to increase autonomy and encourage teams to think for themselves.

“A defining characteristic of servant leaders is the emphasis on personal integrity in all realms of life, work, family, and community that extends beyond other leadership approaches, such as transformational leadership. Internalized moral standards guide servant leaders to serve as role models for their followers and to show deep concern for followers’ growth and development. Whereas transformational leaders are seen as putting their organization’s values first and encouraging employees to sacrifice their own interests to satisfy the collective.”
- Hu and Liden (2011) Journal of Applied Psychology

Provide goal clarity

Google’s Project Aristotle highlighted that people’s understanding of job expectations, the process for fulfilling these expectations, and the consequences of one’s performance, are a critical factor for team effectiveness. When a team understands organisational goals they have a clear line of sight to what is expected – what work they should and shouldn’t be doing, how they should be planning their Sprints and what Sprint goals to set, what is of value, and what work should be considered as waste.

Create clear structures that encourage a change to the way people work

Where goals set the target, clear structures establish the founding practices and principles of how the work should be done. Importantly, it sets the boundaries for when planning occurs, how planning aligns work to goals, what is expected in terms of quality and compliance, and how everyone – from executives to teams – can change plans and pivot to realise value.

Some organisations see agile as a set of flexible “pick and mix” processes or methodologies. They then “take what works” – an approach that doesn’t change the way people work, but instead reinforces the status quo. This behaviour is motivated by people simply not wanting to change. Other symptoms include phrases like “that can’t be done here”, “it won’t work here”, “what you don’t understand is” or “we already do that”.

To survive rapid, disruptive change and create innovative solutions during tough times, the way the whole enterprise reacts and adapts to disruption must also change. This means executives all the way to teams must change the way they work. Executives must be clear that improvement can only come with a change to the way people work. Be clear about which agile frameworks will create the basis for empiricism, inspection and adaptation. Frameworks like Scrum don’t need adapting. The way medical teams, car manufacturers, video production and even wineries use Scrum is instantly recognisable as Scrum. It’s the nature of work they bring to the team that differs. 

Encourage dependability

Many teams aren’t teams at all. Managers delegate work and people report directly to them on its status. While there may be many people reporting to the manager, and some coordination of work may occur, these are workgroups, not teams. When problems ensue, because others are individually charged with delivering an outcome, no one comes to their rescue – it would impact their personal productivity and personal OKRs.

With clear team goals established, and clear team structures in place, an executive’s job is to promote team-based solutions where members rely on each other to complete quality work on time rather than reverting to old behaviours of siloed, individual work and “throwing it over the fence” when they’re done.

Promote team members to hold each other to account to deliver quality, on time, and of high value, and watch out for those who shrink away from their responsibilities through social loafing.

Conclusions

Self-organisation doesn’t mean self-management. When plans need to change rapidly, centralising decision making and escalating it up the organisational hierarchy results in waiting time and lost opportunities. When impediments to delivery face the team, stepping in and solving problems only results in reliance on leaders over building an innovation mindset and resilience. 

Instead of solving problems for teams, establish the rules and guide rails whereby they’re empowered to work autonomously to deliver value that leaves you to optimise the whole system of work to achieve enterprise strategic outcomes.

– – – –

1. King, R. (2014) Wal-Mart Becomes Agile But Finds Some Limits. Wall Street Journal, Oct 22.

1. Hu, J., & Liden, R. C. (2011) Antecedents of Team Potency and Team Effectiveness: An Examination of Goal and Process Clarity and Servant Leadership – Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 4, 851–862.

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