Self-managing teams are a dream of every scrum master and often an unconscious thought of team members. In this article I’ll share some of my observations on how to prepare development teams to become self-managed and tell you about pitfalls in that process.
Why does my team need to become self-managed?
Self-management, also known as self-organisation, is a type of skill or a mindset that encourages autonomy in teams to proceed without a manager or any other type of central authority who tells how to organise to reach goals. In consequence, self-organized teams make their own decision, prefer using their own patterns of work learned thanks to the retrospective and based on their experience and don’t feel the permanent need for asking for managerial help. That mindset supports creativity, improves manageability, speeds-up team’s work, can positively affect team’s morale and most importantly – its results. All these factors improve team’s ability to deal with complex problems or challenges such as software development. People can really feel the sense of purpose, autonomy, and mastery as presented by Daniel Pink. It’s a dream that can come true.
What stops teams from being self-organised?
Depending on the organisation the list of impediments may vary, however, in my opinion, the biggest one is the inappropriate mindset. By that I mean a sum of micromanagement, a lack of fail-friendly approach to development, and low focus on learning and getting better, not to mention the lack of clear vision and mutual goals.
Let’s start from the top one since that’s often a root cause of the problem. You can recognise it by boss-centric obsession and a manager making himself the only proper authority, assigning tasks to people and controlling the work, causing limited possibilities to make any decisions by team members. No matter if it’s made unintentionally or in good faith, that easily results in creating more and more bottlenecks and affects team’s self-organisation. It leads people to behave in a more reactive than proactive way, which apparently isn’t what we need here. They quickly learn that only manager deals with problems, so they prefer waiting for the instructions or approval instead of making their own decisions. As a consequence, some people may want to use an error-avoidance strategy that will never allow self-organised teams to grow.
Other huge roadblocks for implementing the self-management mindset can be team’s dysfunctions described by Patrick Lencioni. Among those dysfunctions we will notice a lack of commitment, accountability, and inattention to results. These make it almost impossible to become a self-organised team and then a team behaves more like a group of people than a real team focused on high performance and delivering value. Because of the above, teams are afraid to take the risk and fail, and finally to take the responsibility for the results. No one cares about reaching mutual goals, there’s no room for creativity or sharing honest opinions about any shortcomings. In such conditions our team can’t self-manage, so we need a manager to sort it out.
How to prepare for the self-organisation?
Although the bossy style of management needs to fade away, as we can see, the managers are still needed. But we should assume that their role is not to tell people how to do their job or to be a hero that saves the world (or project and the team), but to show the direction, to support the team in getting better at making decisions, in taking risk, in using a fast feedback loop often, in building useful metrics, i.e. collecting appropriate data and based on them implementing further improvements and adjusting the way of work.
As our intention is to allow the team to become an owner of the work-process and its results, we really need a manager with that new mindset to support the change and not to be afraid of losing his/her job as a result of the transition. Thus, the manager should help with changing the mindset, organisational bad habits, creating a space for a culture of trust and a fail-friendly environment. In the end, it’s not only the team but also the organisation, that will be affected by the shift. The mutual understanding of team’s self-management is crucial – it must be clear what to self-manage even means and what actions are expected. We should get to this point using examples, showcasing model solutions, and promoting own initiatives. Some delegation tactics, such as allowing teams to decide or take part in the decisive process, should also be considered early. To support all the above we should use series of retrospectives to build the trust and a feeling of commitment. We all need to be on the same page. As a result, teams would be encouraged to take the initiative more often.
Then people need to take their time to learn and start experimenting. We need that fail-friendly conditions so any failure should be perceived as a great chance to get better, not a reason to blame. Obviously, in case of any emergency, the managers may help by coaching and challenging the chosen solution, but still, the team should take the initiative, otherwise we would never challenge our self-organisation. That approach will allow people to understand what actions are appropriate and lead to the expected results and let them learn from their own mistakes.
Getting regular feedback on the change is important as well. Teams should actively use both retrospectives and ad-hoc meetings when needed to address the progress and change into the self-management. That’s the moment for inspect and adapt. Only thanks to that it’s possible to notice the improvements and audit whether the changes go in the right direction and, what’s most important, if they bring any value for the team and customer.
How to recognise if a team is self-organised?
If you don’t need to put out a fire and direct the team too often and the work still goes smoothly, people are motivated, are eager to suggest new solutions, and just focus on doing the right thing in the right way – you did it. To double-check you may ask yourself some of the following questions:
- Does my team assign itself to the tasks and decide how to deal with the work?
- Do team members help each other with difficulties?
- Do I need to tell the team what to focus on during the sprint?
- Does my team re-plan the work based on the priorities instead of instructions from the manager?
- Does my team seek for improvements on a regular basis?
- Does my team experiment with the way they work?
- Do I need to resolve internal conflicts?
- Does my team challenge in case of shortcomings?
- Does my team think in terms of a team as a whole (not just a group of people)?
If you answered “yes” to most of these questions, then they do the duties that normally would come with the manager, but they self-manage! Ideally, it can be done simultaneously by all team members without creating bottlenecks and limitations to the team’s decision, so the team’s power would emerge, and it will boost their productivity and motivation.
Self-managing teams are a vital point on our way towards agility. Becoming a one isn’t easy and quick, but certainly, it’s worth doing. If only we understand the potential roadblocks, we can start the journey. The first steps can be painful and may require additional attention, trust and some encouragement. Creating a fail-friendly environment can help to suit it well. Then the only thing left is to regularly experiment, learn new areas on how to self-organise, inspect and adapt. That challenge can bring us the value that every manager and team member will admire.
About the authorHubert Ochmański
Software Delivery Manager and Scrum Master
A Software Delivery Manager and Scrum Master with 10+ years’ experience in Agile and Waterfall project management, Hubert combines conventional and modern approaches. Co-creator and co-implementer of Agile transformation in multicultural, international projects, he works with cross-functional development teams, product owners and customer management specialists to build efficient software delivery processes. Outside of work, Hubert has spent over 1,500 hours training others in project management.