May 3, 2011

Self organizing teams - is it the best practise or a myth?

In many management literature and methodologies self organizing teams have been thought to be the best ones. This is one thing I've never really understood. I have a background from many sports and I don't know a single team in the history of sports which would have been successful as self organizing one. Also I haven't met many self organizing teams which would work really well. Is the whole thing just beautiful thought or is the concept of self organizing team misunderstood? Or is it just me?

How I see self organizing teams are understood and also how I've understood it, is that self organizing team is a team which is independent, can solve problems on their own, are capable of best solutions due to being all-inclusive (having the necessary skills) and also are able to divide their work on most effective way using the intelligence of the group (self led). This is the idea what this writing is based on.

Many Agile SW development frameworks proposes self organizing teams as the basis for the whole framework to work. Argumentation is that teams are much motivated when they have empowerment to decide about their work. Also they commit and keep their promises much better because they have the possibility to make the decisions about their own work. This all makes sense, almost everyone likes when they get to choose how they do things and what they commit to.

At this point I always start to think on sports. Why there's so many coaches and people around the teams to help them do better? Doesn't the guys in the field know the best how to handle different situations? Doesn't experiences teams know how to adapt to changes in the field themselves? Why sport teams are not self organizing?

Some of the best teams in the world are really capable to handle many situations themselves. And yes the teams are in the field themselves and reacting themselves. But what is different is that they have been prepared to handle many of the situations up front. They have been learning different ways to approach the problem. They have in their minds playbook full of way's to tackle the problem they come in to. They have been preparing, they are most often ready for the challenge ahead. Even for surprising things, they may have common rules to follow to mitigate the potential danger. All this is done with the help outside of the team in the field.

It's easy to argue that sports are different than work life teams. Sport teams train much more and actually "work" much less, and on the other hand work teams "work" most of the time and almost never practice. As said sport teams have much more support personnel and work teams have much less. Also with sport teams there's more strict rules to follow that with work teams. But are those still such a different ones. Team is a team whatever the game is or whatever the purpose is.

Now coming back to the self directing team thinking. Does team really need to be independent? It would make sense that teams would have the best possible knowledge to tackle any given task. Most often there's someone out of the team who has some more insights and ideas on ways to tackle the task. Team can never be complete, there's always some competence out of the team that would be beneficial for the team. Always.

What about the self organizing/self led teams then, is self organizing the best way to organize? Is getting the job done the same thing as doing a good job? Sure all teams can self organize, always they do come up with some solution how to divide the work and so forth. Many experienced teams might even do a really good job, but many teams unfortunately don't. Often the result is not leading to learning and using the best people to work on most important issues. Self organizing tends to please everyone in the team and on that way might not be the best thing for the team or the product they are working on.

The main catch with self organizing team is the motivating aspect. Possibility to control your own work and doings is motivating. Doing what you desire leads to the best results in long run. Still true motivation is self centric, it evolves from personal desire's and ambitions and in this case requires that the thing team does is motivating as such. Then there's an extra motivation coming from the possibility to affect more on the things you should be doing.

I think concept of self organizing teams might have been misunderstood a bit. True value of the team comes from it's capability to be more valuable with co-operation than it's individuals would be themselves. Team can be always detected to be a team, but the boundaries of the team aren't always that clear. Is a soccer team only the guys in the field? What about the guys in the bench? What about the guys participating in training? Or all the supporting people, are they part of the team? What actually matters is the result, not the team composition. Teams in work life could also be more open and loosen the boundaries of the team to be able to respond and get help from outside always when needed.

If you think sports teams there's always people to help. Coaches help building the competences all the time, during practices, games and all the time between. Also other support personnel react when there is need to get help for someone. All of these share the common goal and work towards the same target, still only part of these do actual visible work. Maybe this would be a place for work life organizations to learn. Maybe there could be much more coaches and supporting personnel to help, advice, boost and even watch over the team, to make sure team performs and learns the optimal way.

Sure there's many questions that how would this work out in real work life, but I encourage you to look outside the box and really try to reason why the teams need to be self organizing and self led. Is it really the best alternative out there. Could there be some other alternatives which would maybe take some of the freedom away, but would actually boost the effectiveness on the other hand.

Written by +Henri Hämäläinen

1 comment:

  1. Great article.
    For me the biggest mistake that people make when they think/talk about self-organizing team is that they think it is self-created.
    I wrote a blog post about that a few years ago:


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