Agile & Digital

How many rules do you need to self-organise a team?

It’s striking how many rules and processes today’s “self-organising teams” seem to require – isn’t this a contradiction in terms?

I have been researching and working around self-organization for many years now. Some of our clients have made impressive progress with self-organising teams and there is increasing interest in concepts like Agile and Holacracy.

There is some confusion between the terms “Agile organization” and “Agile methodology” and I will come back to this in a future blog. However, if we look at examples like Agile methodology and Holacracy (as used at Zappos) it is striking how structured their processes are.

  • In strict Agile methodology we work with product backlogs, sprints, scrums, burn down charts, task boards and retrospectives
  • Organizations such as Spotify replaced traditional names with new labels – tribes, chapters, guilds and squads to replace business units, functions and teams (though they perform remarkably similar functions)
  • In Holacracy we need to master a bewildering array of hierarchical circles, governance rules, tensions, regular meetings, escalations, lead, rep and cross links

At an organizational level these ways of working don’t replace hierarchy, they embed it into teams or circles, autonomy is quite tightly prescribed to the mission of the team. They do however profess high levels of autonomy in how the work is performed and this can be very valuable.

I also don’t underestimate the value of renaming activities, maybe being part of the tribe genuinely feels more inclusive than being part of a business unit.

Any organization is much more than the sum of its teams, and not all work can be organised into two-week sprints. Large organizations require certain activities to be performed such a setting business direction and developing functional excellence and capability.

It’s likely that the focus of self-organization will remain at the team level for the foreseeable future and that there will be a natural tension between the need for governance and the desire for autonomy. Setting lots of rules and processes around self-organization is probably a symptom of this.

True self organization is a bit more organic. It is about enabling real authority to emerge for individuals to do their work, whether coordinated through a team or through autonomous individuals reporting to a leader.

One area where all the rules can help is in defining what roles need to emerge. These new forms of organization all recognise the need for a team lead role that focuses on delivery, they also recognise the need for coaching and process support for the individuals in the team.

In our training we introduce tools for teams to have a mature conversation about which roles need to be performed and who are the best people to perform them. This is not about appointing leaders but distributing leadership throughout the team.

In my own team, individuals have emerged who are much more motivated and skilled in providing ongoing coaching to team members and in maintaining our community, which has enabled me to stay much more focused on strategy and direction.

Ultimately there may be a tension between self-organization and governance but some guidance on what needs doing is usually helpful, otherwise teams can spend a lot of time making the same mistakes. Self-organization does not mean no organization.

See an interactive graphic on our digital and agile leadership training.

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