How to make a team self-organizing

Stream of Consciousness

Self-organizing teams perform better than micro-managed ones. The ability to really make a difference motivates the team members and makes everyone contribute his best effort. But how can we create self-organizing teams when everyone is used to hierarchical command and control patterns?

To be able to self-organize and perform optimally, a few basics need to be in place. With the proper foundation, the whole team can organize themselves and perform better.

Clear Direction

The most fundamental requirement for a team to be able to self-organize is a clear direction. Only if everyone within the team knows exactly what the overall goals are can they make the right trade-off decisions. Typically, the managers know much more about the strategy of the company and the current goals than any team member. In a command and control pattern this is assumed to be OK as all decisions are made by the manager. But, in a self-organized team, the team members are supposed to take decisions themselves. They can only make good decisions if they know enough about the current goals as well as the underlying strategy. Management has to make sure that the team is in the know. This requires trust and openness, two things which do not come easily to some managers.

Visual Management

The second success factor for self-organized teams is visual management. If every individual team member is supposed to take good decisions all the time, they need to know more than just the goals and strategy. They need to know the current situation as well. Setup lots of visual controls for the current status: task boards, build indicators, performance graphs, … everything possible. It’s a must that everyone can always see the real-time status.

Ownership

You need a team of individuals who care. That’s very simple. If your people don’t care about their work, you’re in trouble anyways. But, if you let these same people take over critical decision making, your troubles will multiply. If you give control to your team, they need to be able and willing to take up ownership. Initially, this is pretty hard; almost all problems seem to be out of the team’s hands and they raise them as impediments. But, over time, they learn to take ownership for more and more of these problems. This speeds things up dramatically and makes the team even more successful.

Moving from micro-managed to self-organizing teams will lead to both higher motivation and performance. In order to succeed, you must set a clear direction, make the current status visible, and build ownership directly into your team.

What are your experiences in making teams self-organized? Let us know in the comments below!

6 thoughts on “How to make a team self-organizing

  1. As the concept of self-organizing teams gains popularity in management circles, many managers will be wondering how to implement self-organization. While you’ve laid out some great suggestions for the type of environment that is required for self-organization, the title of this post reinforces the common fallacy that you can -make- a team self-organizing. 🙂

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  2. Kudos for the nice article.

    In today’s economy, where money is a big motivating factor and jobs are plenty it’s a difficult task to put ownership in the shoulder of an employee.

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  3. Thanks for the post Matthias. After coming onboard my current employer only a few months ago, I got an email today from one of my team who has been in our traditional support desk for several years that said “I think its interesting that of all the CIOs we’ve had ur [sic] the first one that has been involved with the rest of IT.”

    Coming from an agile development world, I can’t imagine not getting involved with my team and working to build trust in (and with) them. I can’t imagine how their former CIOs thought they might succeed through passivity or disrespect of all they do not know. And to “be involved” and not micro-manage to me is part of being on the team, not sitting in my office with the “over there”.

    I can’t say at this point if I am going to win or lose (I have my bias and my intentions of course), but winning to me includes having a team that is autonomous, trusting, trust-worthy and powerful.

    –Ken

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