Self-Organized Teams

“Scrum exposes every inadequacy or dysfunction within an organization’s product and system development practices. The intention of scrum is to make them transparent so the organization can fix them. Unfortunately, many organizations change scrum to accommodate the inadequacies or dysfunctions instead of solving them”.

Ken Schwaber.

After a couple of months into an agile transformation we frequently begin to experience the dysfunctions referenced in Ken Schwaber’s comment above. Organizations can languish here for a long time, or can can make an honest attempt to address the problems that are now holding them back. The organization may have enthusiastically embraced many of the practices recommended by scrum – user stories, sprint planning, daily stand-ups, burn-down charts, sprint reviews and even retrospectives – but the teams are feeling overwhelmed, disempowered and stressed. Many organizations decide to ‘go agile’, but leave existing organization structures in place, turning managers into product owners or scrum masters, or even both! The transparency provided by agile practices is a micromanager’s dream. When this happens teams have little opportunity to become self-organized, take ownership of their work, and mature their practices as a team. This becomes a serious impediment to progress.

Let’s remind ourselves of the most relevant principles:

Agile Principles
Agile Principles

Teams need autonomy and empowerment to be considered ‘self-organized’. Obviously there are boundaries within which even an expowered team must operate. This is where team working agreements, and definitions of ‘Ready’ and ‘Done’ can play an important role, and can act as ‘guard rails’ within which a team can exercise such autonomy. Getting these agreements in place and supported by management and product owners is an essential early step teams should take. The following chart is a summary of how an organization might redefine operational responsibilities as part of an agile transformation program.

Agile Organization Roles
Agile Organization Roles

Going back the agile principles, we might state the mission of an agile team as:

  • Goal: Continuous delivery of business value
  • How: Self-Organized teams, operating via Team Working Agreements, Definitions of Ready and Done

It’s easy to spot an empowered team – those are the ones who act empowered – they make most of the decisions affecting the team, or at least exert great influence on those decisions. They can usually take action on decisions or trade-offs without waiting for permission from managers. Empowered teams will have a clear focus – clear vision, mission, and business goals – they have a level of clarity that reduces conflict and accelerates all decision making and action taking. They also have continuous engagement with stakeholders – this enables frequent feedback and the ability to refine goals and maintain organizational alignment and support. Evolving to self-organized and empowered teams is a prerequisite for true agility – empowered teams accelerate product development through faster decision-making and tighter collaboration.

For many experienced managers this can be a tough transition. It involves a lot of letting go and refocusing of energies and priorities in the service of building teams and helping them to succeed.  Or, as they say at Toyota: “We build people before we build cars”.

The Agile Manager
The Agile Manager
 Aspiring agile leaders need to adopt a shift to the following mindset:
  • Provide teams with autonomy and trust, including permission to fail.
  • Encourage experimentation.
  • Challenge teams to question every development process.
  • Expect a commitment to change and improvement.
  • Support continuous individual learning and growth.
  • Support both technical and personal skills development.
  • Encourage development of ‘T-shaped’ skills

The broader organization, including HR departments and OD teams, need to take this issue seriously. Agile teams need a very different kind of management support. Agile transformations need to have well thought out plans for managers. This will save a lot of confusion, conflict and time in the agile adoption journey.

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