Self-organization of the Team

We have this idea in Agile, that the Team should self-organize.  This is an important idea. And, more, an important action of the Team.

In Agile, self-organization is contrasted with command-and-control.

We think self-organization is an important thing to study, both in general and in your Team. It seems simple, but like almost anything, to do it really well, it becomes complex.  And then simple again.


One, because it is just right.  People are free, and self-organization is saying that the Team is allowed to be free.

From experience, we know this needs to be explained a bit.

Some will say: well, the company has bought their time as employees, so the company gets to define what the Team does.  They are almost saying: The company gets to treat them as slaves.

Well, let is concede this at a high level in a way. Let us say that the company (or leadership) must define the vision or the goal or the general product.  And the business side (PO) must be the final decision-maker on the user stories.  The Team members are not slaves, but we can assume that, as employees, they agree to help the company achieve its vision for pay.  The knowledge workers don’t get to do just anything they want.  A contract.

But, devising the work, figuring out how they will get to the goal, they should have the freedom to do.  Lots and lots of people who have studied knowledge workers performing well support this idea.  Peter Drucker and Danial Pink come to mind quickly.

The second main answer is: self-organizing knowledge workers tend to do better work than human ‘slaves’ (humans directed by one or a few command-and-control people).

There is lots of evidence of this. The first book I recommend is The Wisdom of Teams by Katzenbach and Smith.  The basic evidence is that a self-organizing team out-performs, almost always, the smartest individual.  And to such a degree that the extra cost is well worth it.  But, you must give them some degree of ‘freedom’ or autonomy.

There are also a lot of more recent evidence.

Some topic you may wish to research:
Complex Adaptive System
Maneuver Warfare
Free Enterprise
Knowledge Creation

Note: Some people say that a free enterprise system is mainly characterized by (mostly) private ownership of capital (means of production). And attribute its successes or failures to that. Others focus on the freedom of individuals to make their own decisions (much like the “wisdom of crowds” idea) and on the view of the national economy as a complex adaptive system, trying to accomplish high-level economic success via many individual agents (people or companies) making their own decisions.  In our view, successful free enterprise countries exhibit many of the successful characteristics related to self-organization.

Command-and-Control Managers

Lots of managers have been taught, explicitly or implicitly, that the ‘workers’ are dumb, and the manager must tell the worker how to do the work.  In our view, especially for virtually 100% of knowledge workers (our domain), this is a very incorrect teaching.  But it is, nonetheless, what they have learned, to a large degree.

Some of these managers also understand freedom to some degree, and understand that they want the people in their group to ‘think for themselves.’ But, we can say with relative assurance, most companies have a lot of people who are relatively command-and-control in their style.

And, in pressure situations (a common situation), they want to use, too much, the command-and-control style.

Again, this is not true of all managers, but of many. It depends, in part, on the company’s culture.  Or the culture of the company a manager was most influenced by.

It is hard to convince these people to be patient with the team in self-organizing.

It is also worth noting the vast difference between coaching and command-and-control.  The idea of coaching is that someone (in sports typically an older person) is smarter is some ways, at least, and can coach the professional to be better.  Can help them practice and become better.  When the player is ‘doing the work’ you do not give specific instructions, but, typically, when the player is ‘off the field’ you might give them sports psychology or general strategy or communication help or very specific skills.  Often you wait until the player asks for help.

Teams that won’t self-organize

This is seen in teams in the real world.

There seem to be several root causes.

One, the team has been beat down by command-and-control managers so much that they have ‘forgotten’ how to self-organize.

Another: That the Team does not believe it when managers say ‘self-organize’.

Another: The Team is fearful that by self-organizing they will be ‘held accountable’ — with punishment a likely outcome.  To avoid pain, they refuse to self-organize.

Whatever the reason, two things can be said.

Many Team (perhaps with Agile coaches) do eventually break out from being ‘stuck’ (not self-organizing).

And some Teams may take a very long time or perhaps never do it.

Let’s be a bit more clear:  Almost any team or person will self-organize to some degree. This latter example if where the degree is very low.

The key advice is this:
First, you will often want to try an Agile Coach.
Second, if the Team still will not self-organize, or seems to want to self-organize to mediocrity, then a good manager should intervene.  Temporarily.  And often this intervention can be quite forceful.  But force should only be used after a good length of time just advising the Team ‘do you feel you are self-organizing well? is there anything we can do to help you self-organize better?’

Be patient. Often Teams will really self-organize only after two or three sprints.  Keep talking about it, and ask them if they need help.

Third In the view of some (including me), some Teams lack some key skills or knowledge to self-organize. For example, a new junior Team may not know really how to break down work into tasks for the sprint planning meeting. Sometimes ‘holding their hand’ as they mature is a very successful approach.  And 3 or 4 sprints later, they can be very good at self-organizing their own Sprint Backlog, as one example. And then you ‘let go of the hand.’

Learning to decide as a Team

Each Team learns how to decide.

The first, most useful thing, is that everyone in the Team gets to offer input on a decision.

Next, the Team needs to accept that no decision is ever perfect.  Thus, decisions in general must be made, perhaps not always quickly, but promptly.  And some will turn out to be wrong.

The Team needs to understand the impact of decisions on the morale of the Team and on the success of the Team.

In our view, most teams go through a forming and storming period of decision-making.  And then later get better.

Good self-organization… and better

Lots of Teams seem to self-organize well.

What is also common is for most Teams to plateau.

A root cause is that most Teams seem to want to reach a stasis… a place where things are balanced and where change slows down.

But have they reached the height of improvement?  We think not.  We know that other Teams (of the same talent level) have reached much higher heights.  And some Teams keep on improving.

There seem to be two main factors (or sets of factors):
* magic — or, more accurately, a bunch of things that are hard to describe.
* a bunch of factors that people talk about, and some teams study and work on

Some of these last factors seem to be quite ‘soft.’  Love (or caring for each other as people…for some of you, perhaps better to say that they mostly like each other and help each other), listening, creativity, and heart (in several meanings) seem to be among them.


If you have never been on a good team, it is hard to understand what self-organizing is all about.  You don’t really start to understand it until you have experienced it several times. Each time it is different.

Within the Team, it might be rather rough and ready. But a lot depends on the specific individuals in the Team.


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