Self-organizing teams are those teams that are given a goal and decide amongst themselves how best to solve the problems at hand to achieve the goal. In the agile world, these teams also work in small cycles and use feedback to learn quickly and adjust course as needed. When things go well – these teams do extremely well. In software that usually means building great software that delights the customer.
But things don’t always go so well. I’ve been on many such teams that don’t achieve those levels of performance and sometimes fall flat on their face and fail miserably. What happens? Here are some common stumbling-blocks that I’ve observed:
- Lack of safety. When individuals on a self-organizing team feel unsafe to share their thoughts and experiences and ideas the team is unable to leverage that expertise to make decisions and learn quickly. Therefore the teams learn more slowly and make more mistakes and are blocked.
- Lack of ownership. When individuals don’t take ownership for the success of the team, they watch mistakes happen within the team and “don’t step up” to fix them because that is not their responsibility. However, self-organizing teams kick-ass because they are able to leverage the diversity of the group. They make great decisions and learn quickly because everyone takes ownership for the success of the group.
- Not addressing problems early. No matter how safe things are, or how much ownership you take, if you don’t see problems and address them when they are small, you have no chance of achieving high performance. The problems grow and become significantly harder to solve.
- Not caring about human dynamics. Sometimes we get annoyed with each other. Sometimes we have disagreements and some bad feelings linger and may fester. Great teams don’t let these things build up and have the difficult conversations quickly. However, for the rest of us, this is the beginning of the end. We end up spending too much of our time working with things. We start to feel unsafe around others. And we disengage.
- Not using consent. Self-organizing teams do the best they can to get everyone’s input and make it real. That is best done by consent – not majority rules – or leader rules – or more experienced rules. You miss too many opportunities to do the right thing and catch mistakes early if you discount someone’s ideas. They have legitimate concerns even if they are the in the minority. Effective teams take the time to listen and address those concerns.
- Not able to confront and learn from failure. Knowledge work is all about creating something new. And creating something new is always fraught with mistakes and missteps. However failure is often unsafe and painful. Teams that are unable to confront failure will not learn from those opportunities and will often take much longer to get to a less effective solution than teams who fail fast and learn from those failures.
And, if you manage to get it right at the team level – how does this scale? Or does it? In many organizations, a small team doing well will only be a blip on the radar and won’t really affect the success or failure of a product, let alone the organization. But that’s a topic for another post, stay tuned….