self-organizing team definition

A self-organizing team is a group of professionals who make their own decisions about how to best manage and complete work.

The rise of the Agile approach to managing projects popularized the concept of self-organizing teams. The main idea is to give more autonomy to the people closest to the technical details of actual customers’ requests or projects. This way, organizations aim to increase team morale and efficiency to deliver superior value to customers. 

How Do Self-Organizing Teams Work?

Self-organizing teams work by engaging in collaborative sessions (meetings) to plan their own tasks. Instead of waiting on a manager to distribute a set of work assignments, self-organizing teams usually visualize their work in backlogs and sit together to determine how to organize best what needs to be done. 

Team members use regular planning sessions to replenish a work queue in the process. Based on the management approach and nature of the process, they can release batches of work in predefined timeframes or continuously deliver solutions to the market. Regardless of the approach, team members use those planning sessions to agree on what everybody should work on. Then, they’re encouraged to complete their assignments the best way they decide. The goal is to reduce micromanagement and make team experts feel like valuable assets to the company. In turn, this can significantly increase their productivity levels.

It’s important to mention that project managers do not disappear from self-organizing teams. However, their role shifts. They focus on managing the work instead of the workers, prioritizing team projects, collecting customer feedback, communicating the company’s vision, and being the connective tissue between the team(s) and top-level management.   

What Emerges from a Self-Organizing Team?

The 11th Agile principle for project management states that “the best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams”. This is a direct reference to the idea that management in organizations should actively involve team members in planning efforts and give them autonomy to make local decisions about work execution approaches. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense because it’s usually the professionals on a team who produce direct customer value with their technical expertise on a given topic. So, trusting in their skills makes them feel valued, which can result in better product/service quality.

What Are the Principles and Characteristics of Self-Organizing Teams? 

The main principles and characteristics of self-organizing teams are listed below. 

  1. High Levels of Competency
  2. Focus on Collaboration and Teamwork
  3. Motivation (Including Self-Accountability)
  4. Trust and Respect
  5. Continuous Improvement
  6. Sense of Ownership and Commitment

Keep in mind those principles and characteristics are extremely important because if teams don’t abide by them, their self-organization attempt might turn into anarchy. 

1. High-Level of Competency

To function properly, the members of a self-organizing team should be competent not just in their area of expertise but also in project management. In addition, self-organization comes with a lot of responsibility, so team members need to successfully manage their own time and have a great understanding of the work process. Finally, cross-functionality is another essential concept for self-organizing teams because it allows professionals to help each other and cover multiple areas whenever necessary. 

2. Focus on Collaboration and Teamwork

Collaboration is at the heart of self-organizing teams. The goal is to have an open environment and emphasize teamwork rather than individual performance. Self-organizing teams are characterized by creating a no-blame environment and continuously elevating each other to achieve success as a group. Other than having competency, it’s crucial for the members of a self-organizing team to express empathy, be comfortable sharing knowledge, and work together as a unit.  

3. Motivation (Including Self-Accountability)

Another important characteristic of self-organizing teams is motivation. Instead of waiting on assignments from higher-level management, the members of such teams start their work and are even encouraged to come up with ideas on what to do when there’s nothing planned yet. This requires a high level of motivation, self-accountability, and dedication to a shared vision. 

4. Trust and Respect

The first part of the 4th principle relates to valuing the opinions of each other on the team. Here comes in place the idea of having a work environment where nobody feels they have superiority over another just because they’re in a more senior position. The members of a self-organizing team respect and actively listen to each other as final decisions are made based on historical data rather than opinions. Furthermore, due to the cross-functionality concept, self-organizing teams trust that everybody can get the planned work done successfully. When somebody is stuck or lacks specific knowledge, they’re encouraged to ask for help or even have some slack time to dedicate to learning. 

5. Continuous Improvement

Commitment to continuous improvement is perhaps the most critical trait of self-organizing teams. That’s because focusing on growth within their areas of expertise can seriously boost the team’s performance and ultimately the company’s value delivery to the end customer. For example, managers in Agile organizations stimulate their members to spend their slack time learning something new by reading a book, an article, or going through a course. This is very different from the traditional approach, where managers fully utilize their team’s time even if the work at hand doesn’t bring actual customer value. The commitment to continuous improvement helps teams self-organize because they gradually become more competent in what they do, which raises their confidence.

6. Sense of Ownership and Commitment

The final principle of self-organizing teams is about having a sense of ownership and commitment to a common purpose. Team members need to exhibit responsibility for the work they need to do and be open to sharing challenges or impediments that stand in their way so they can solve them as soon as possible. Moreover, self-organization without commitment to a shared purpose would not work. Here we can refer back to one of the responsibilities of project managers in Agile organizations, which is about creating a shared purpose and actively communicating it. 

What Are the Steps to Create a Self-Organizing Team? 

The most important steps that you need to follow to set a self-organizing team for success are listed below. 

  1. Training
  2. Coaching 
  3. Mentoring

1. Training

Training is a vital part of every self-organizing team because, without the necessary preparation, managers risk self-organization turning into anarchy. So, it’s important for every team to feel comfortable and confident with the work they need to do. As we mentioned above, this can happen through actively promoting self-growth and investing in your team members’ development within their area of expertise. Besides the on-the-job qualifications, it’s important for self-organizing teams to grasp the Agile principles of working and gain soft skills. This will help them shift their thinking from individual to team performance.

2. Coaching

Setting up a self-organizing team is far from a one-time endeavor. Instead, it requires maintenance which can take the form of coaching. For example, you can integrate Agile coaches within your team. They’re experts on Agile ways of working (including self-organization) and can give your teams directions on how to best plan and structure their work based on a particular management approach. Agile coaches also organize sessions to hone team members’ skills in working together as a unit which is an essential part of self-organization. Gradually, the idea is for the team to detach from the coach and start practicing self-organization on their own. 

3. Mentoring

Finally, mentoring is also a crucial step in terms of self-organization. Even if a team has become good at it, it’s still likely that they will need ongoing support, especially if some unknown challenges arise before them. The line between self-organization and anarchy is thin, so to make sure teams don’t cross it, it’s a good idea to keep a mentor around them. This responsibility can go to the Agile coach or a senior team member who has expressed leadership skills to keep the right balance within the team.   

What Is the Importance of Self-Organizing Teams in Agile?

Self-organization is an essential trait of Agile teams because they contribute to fast and frequent value delivery to the market. This happens because, in an Agile environment, team members are left to freely exert their expertise on a given topic without being micromanaged. In addition, respecting individual skills increases team members’ motivation, improving their efficiency and contributing to the faster and more frequent release of working solutions to end customers.  

What Is the Difference Between a Traditional and Agile Team?

The main difference between a traditional and an Agile team lies in self-organization. Traditional teams have a rigid hierarchy and usually practice top-down project management. They keep tight control over plans and work execution to meet customers’ expectations. However, teams often suffer from this due to micromanagement which leaves them unhappy and reduces their productivity. That’s why Agile gives more freedom to professionals to collaboratively plan their work and then make decisions on how to execute it. The goal is to show team members that they’re valuable assets to the company and motivate them to create the best possible value with their work.

Another difference is that Agile teams are highly cross-functional while traditional teams create functional silos. Usually, this creates more dependencies between them, slowing down work processes. 

Are Agile Teams Prone to Self-Organization?

In Agile, teams are prone to self-organization. However, that doesn’t happen immediately. Teams need to undergo training on Agile project management principles and practices (including hard and soft skills) and receive ongoing support in coaching and mentoring to practice self-organization successfully. 

What Are the Challenges Faced by the Self-Organizing Teams?

Some of the main challenges faced by self-organizing teams are listed below. 

  • Resistance: When turning from a traditional team structure to self-organization, you might face opposition from project managers or some senior team members.
  • Lack of self-management skills: Professionals on a team might lack self-management skills, making the transition to self-organization hard.
  • Team conflicts: Due to the team’s autonomy, there is a good chance that more team members will have separate opinions, leading to disputes.
  • Absence of individual accountability: Some people might be less accountable than others to do their work, which can cause an imbalance in the team. 

What Is the Kanban Perspective on Self-Organizing Teams?

Kanban embraces the concept of self-organization as it closely follows one of the Lean pillars, “respect for people”. It views teams as a group of professionals who provide a given service (ex., marketing, sales, software development, etc.). Unlike more generic Agile, the Kanban method does not fully share the cross-functionality agenda in the sense that the handover of work should be minimized to reduce dependencies. Instead, Kanban recognizes that teams in organizations are a network of interdependent service providers. The idea is first to visualize the flow of services across the entire network and then incrementally improve it through a set of practices and techniques. 

Try Kanbanize for Free