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agile self organizing teams

Agile self-organizing teams: What they are and why they work

Reading time: about 7 min

Agile development has popularized the idea of self-organizing teams—but what exactly does that mean? And how do self-organized Scrum teams function successfully? 

First, we have to break down how a Scrum organization system works. Scrum is an Agile framework designed to help teams build better products while delivering higher value. One of the main features of a Scrum organization is the lack of hierarchy within a Scrum team. Scrum teams consist of one Scrum Master, one Product Owner, and developers who all work together towards their product goals. 

Rather than relying on a top-down direction from a project manager, Agile Scrum teams are self-organizing, collaborating and communicating as a group to drive work forward and decide what to focus on next.

In this article, we’ll highlight the benefits and challenges of Agile self-organizing teams and outline how Scrum teams and Agile leadership can help self-organizing teams succeed.

What is a self-organizing team?

A self-organizing team has the autonomy to decide as a group how they will work together, who will take ownership of different processes or decisions along the way, and ultimately, how they will get the work done. 

As the Scrum Guide explains: “Scrum Teams are cross-functional, meaning the members have all the skills necessary to create value each Sprint. They are also self-managing, meaning they internally decide who does what, when, and how.”

Because each team and product goal is different, not every Agile team will self-organize in the same way. This, of course, is a feature, not a bug of self-organizing teams. 

Each team is empowered to operate in the way that works best for them—ideally leading to more effective and efficient processes that deliver greater value. 

The role of managers in a self-organizing team

Although self-organizing teams have extensive freedom and autonomy, they aren’t one hundred percent independent of outside control. Managers still play a role in the direction and ultimate success of their teams. 

So how do the two work together to find that balance?

Management is typically responsible for 

  • Putting the team together
  • Clarifying product goals and project constraints
  • Facilitating effective collaboration and development
  • Removing obstacles and barriers to success

Ideally, managers should act as team facilitators and servant leaders, helping the team self-organize effectively while stepping back to give team members room to problem solve and make decisions themselves.  

Advantages to self-organizing teams

There are several advantages to moving towards a self-organizing model of Agile teams. Self-organizing teams foster: 

Enhanced collaboration—Instead of waiting for a manager to assign work and then putting their heads down and getting the task done, each team member communicates and decides together how the work will be distributed and accomplished. This requires ongoing collaboration, problem-solving, and planning. This helps team members avoid working in silos and ensures everyone is aligned throughout the development process.

Learning from peers and seniors—Increased collaboration provides greater opportunities for team members to listen to and learn from each other through the brainstorming, planning, and problem-solving process. It can also lead to valuable mentoring relationships.

Team buy-in and ownership—When people are empowered to make decisions, they’re more likely to be invested in those decisions and motivated to do the work to reach their goals. This leads to greater engagement and productivity across the team.  

Close team bonding—The more people work together, the closer they become. Instead of sending people off to complete their assignments independently, self-organizing teams work together closely to plan the work and meet their goals. The process is more collaborative and requires trust and respect across the board. 

Challenges to self-organizing teams

Now, you might be thinking “Self-organization sounds great on paper, but it’s not practical. People need leaders.” And you’re not wrong. Implementation can be a challenge for both teams and management. 

Traditional, hierarchical structures for teamwork are familiar and baked into many organizations’ processes. Moving towards an Agile Scrum organization system can be a difficult transition. 

Leaders may struggle to know how much freedom to give their developers while balancing the strategic needs of the company or department. Scrum teams may appreciate being trusted with autonomy, but feel uncertain about how exactly to move forward. 

This can make the transition to Agile self-organizing teams bumpy. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it. You just need the right facilitators and resources in place. 

How to help a self-organizing team succeed

Throwing a group of people together and leaving them to self-organize isn’t going to magically produce great results. That’s why you need specific structures, tools, and resources in place to set your team up for success.

1. Provide proper training 

Make sure your development team is highly skilled and trained for success within a self-organizing framework. Scrum teams are cross-functional, so each team member should have skill sets that complement and support the needs of the product goal. 

Provide regular training on both hard skills and soft skills to ensure competency and efficiency while enhancing communication and collaboration between team members. Training not only increases team effectiveness but also ensures continual improvement—another key value of Agile development. 

As an organization, consider investing in ongoing professional development opportunities for your leaders, too. Help your Scrum Masters become expert trainers and coaches through certification programs. For example, Scrum.org offers a 2-day Professional Scrum Master course to teach the foundation of Scrum principles as well as how Scrum Masters can build and foster a successful self-organizing team.

2. Coach and mentor your Agile teams

In a similar vein, it’s important to provide ongoing coaching and mentoring opportunities to your Agile teams. People who haven’t worked in self-organizing teams before will likely need extra guidance and support in the beginning. 

Consider using the pairing technique to increase bonding and mentorship. Pair programming assigns two developers to work together at a workstation, switching off between the “driver” and the “observer.” This gives team members the opportunity to see how others work, learn from each other and communicate and problem-solve together.

As your teams become more comfortable with self-organizing and learn to take initiative and collaborate confidently, the role of the coach will be less prominent. 

3. Facilitate communication and collaboration

For self-organizing teams to be successful, they need to become masters of communication and collaboration. From planning a sprint to assigning and tracking roles, there is a lot of information and responsibilities to juggle. 

That’s why it’s important to facilitate open communication and collaboration throughout the development process. Here are a couple of ways to build a collaborative culture on your self-organizing team:

  • Create a team working agreement to mitigate conflict. Work together to draft a team agreement on how to handle conflict or communication issues that may arise throughout the project. Creating a team work pact helps set expectations for communication and team interactions, and keeps everyone on the same page should conflicts come up.
  • Visualize your roadmap. With so many moving pieces to juggle, it’s easy for communication to break down or assignments to get lost in the mix. Visualizing your plans makes it easier for teams to quickly see progress at-a-glance and communicate from a shared source of truth. 

Build communication and collaboration into your foundation from the beginning with the rights tools and resources. 

Lucidspark helps self-organizing teams stay on track by facilitating effective brainstorming and making it easy for teams to collaborate and communicate on priorities and ownerships. Take advantage of Lucidspark’s virtual whiteboard and ready-made templates to collaborate in real-time with your team from anywhere. 

With the right processes and resources, self-organizing teams can work better, faster, and more effectively together.

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