Agile & Digital

It takes management to run self-managing Agile teams

Self-managing teams are not new, there have been various experiments over the last 50 years in higher levels of autonomy and self-direction. Organizations like W. Gore were founded on self-managing teams.  Today, however, they are really taking off as movements like Agile and organizational experiments like Holacracy and the form of self-managing teams practised at Spotify become more mainstream.

Although the unit of self-management is the team that does the work, all these approaches recognise that they are embedded with a dynamic matrix structure that requires governance and management (though they may be keen to call it something else like circles, tribes or guilds).

Within the new self-managing Agile teams there is also recognition that certain management or leadership tasks need to be performed. There is normally an activity leader or product owner, there is often someone who focuses on the process needed to complete the work and there is nearly always a role of facilitator or coach focusing on developing the people

These are essential roles and, in a traditional management environment would all be performed by the same appointed manager or leader. In true self-directed teams the responsibility for performing these tasks flow to those people most motivated and able to deliver them. However, in many organizations most leadership roles are still appointed.

Allowing tasks to flow to the people most willing and competent to deliver them makes a lot of sense, provided the team can also cope with failure of leadership to work. I remember at one of my first visits to W Gore where leaders (including the CEO) are elected I asked, “what happens if the leader doesn’t turn out to be any good?”. The associate looked at me as if I was stupid and replied, “we just choose to follow someone else!” I remember thinking that this was a fantastic answer but that requires a high level of maturity in managing the implications.

So self-managing teams doesn’t mean that there is a lack of leadership or management, in effect there is more resource available to lead and manage, but it is distributed throughout the team.

In your team, who do you think is best placed to lead activity, manage the process of your work and coach the people? If all these are best done by your existing formal leader you are fortunate. If not, then it might be worth looking at which of these tasks would be best performed by other team members with the motivation and ability to do them better.

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