Some smart people are discussing self-organization on the Lean Software Development Yahoo group. You might want to listen or talk there.

Here is what I said today:


First, recognize that self-organization happens willy-nilly all the time. I suppose one can still ask when does it start, and where or why does it stop. (Thanks to Tolstoy and “War and Peace” for explaining this to me. I am not just a slow learner; it’s a great book in many ways.)

That is to say, whenever a ‘boss’ gives someone an order (big or small), that person must figure out how to do that (assuming they agree to do it. lots of self-organization very smartly ignores the boss’ stupid orders, as Tolstoy explained).

At a high level, an ‘order’ could be an initial vision of a product: “We need a hybrid car pronto, figure it out.” I think none of us would call that command-and-control, but it could be called an ‘order.’

AND with a Scrum Team there are times and places to say, “Geeze, we don’t know what to do next, can someone help, please?!!?” Not exactly classical self-organization, but the team does ask for help from anyone (if it’s reasonable).

Yes, self-organization within the team is magical and is changing all the time (to a lessor or greater degree), but it is quite real and indeed happening all the time — we have all experienced it.

Next case. What if a ‘capable team’ refuses to self-organize (or only does it minimally)? Let’s assume they are not dysfunctional. What’s up with that?

From experience, they may have been ‘trained’ (company culture or certain managers) not to self-organize and to wait for ‘direction.’ So, when we ask them to self-organize, they may at first not believe the request to self-organize, but after a Sprint or two, they usually start self-organizing.

Some coaching here can often make them more productive sooner.

Next case. I have seen a mediocre team need a manager’s ‘nudging’ (that’s the official term) to get them started. This is partly because they are relatively inexperienced, not used to power, and not used to being in the project early in the process. It feels odd to them, so they feel unsure of what to do. Once started, they self-organize pretty well.

Next question: Will a team of seven always come up with the best solution on their own?

We did not say anything about the team. If they were seven random people compared to one expert in that specific field, perhaps the one expert would have a better solution, but how about seven ‘good’ people in a field, compared to the one ‘smartest’ person?

The research shows that the seven-person team will very likely win, and very likely so (a high probability).

Next: What to do with a weak team?

The team should be encouraged to ask for more feedback and advice. Indeed, there is room for managers to provide leadership — it might be called ‘coaching’ or something else (so that all of them are less likely to fall into command and control). Despite what some Agile people say, I see smart and good managers have a real role. (OK, yes, there may be fewer good managers.)

These good managers are not contrary to self-organization at all once mutual respect is built up (and, as Taiichi Ohno might say, mutual humility: “Half of what I know is wrong” is pretty close to his quote).

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