At first blush, the idea of having a development team self-manage seems ludicrous. But it turns out that self-organizing is all around us, particularly when it comes to social systems. Like, software product development.
What is surprising is that hierarchical management of software development has persisted as long as it has. Because it has not been very effective after all.
They go by many names: ”self-organized,” “self-organizing,” and “self-managed“ are the most popular. Regardless of what you may call them,
Self-organizing teams are a hallmark of Agile software development, directly aﬀecting team eﬀectiveness and project success. 1
What Are They?
The traditional software team is organized hierarchically, with an assigned manager “on top” and developers “below.” Marketing is sometimes “matrixed” into the group. And QA and Operations are “on the other side of the wall.”
Self-Managed Agile teams, on the other hand, are cross-functional groups where “individuals manage their own workload, shift work among themselves based on need and best fit, and participate in team decision making.” 2
Is Self-Organization a Myth?
It's not a free for all. People have specific roles (e.g., Product Owner, Developer, Testing, Operations, Scrummaster). And they don't get to pick the team's goal. That direction normally derives from business needs.
“Self-organization is about the team determining how they will respond to their environment (and management can influence that environment).3
It is easy to misunderstand the concept and call self-organizing a myth. It sure makes for a catchy headline. But even these authors agree that the key is the balance of, “an appropriate level of direction coupled with suitable delegation and trust.”4
Nobody operates in a vacuum. As Mike Cohn points out, development teams operate in a specific environment and effective leaders shape that environment by providing goals, guidance, and an operating framework.
So, self-management is not as scary or crazy a practice as you might have heard.
How Effective are They?
As one of the principles behind the Agile Manifesto states,
The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
According to Brittany Hunter, a software designer at Atomic Object, self-managed teams have been very effective in their experience5, including,
- Better, faster communication
- More trust between client & product team
- Less conflict
- Increased motivation
- Informed decision-making
From our own experience, self-managed teams make better decisions for the product and, therefore, for the business.
At Nearsoft, we use self-managed teams for more than development. For example, a Leadership Team can be brought together by anybody in the company to deal with almost any type of issue. The results have been very positive for us.
Is Your Team Ready to Manage Itself?
If you run a democratic company, then you are ready for self-managed teams. That was easy.
Otherwise, is your management ready for this? Are they ready to let go? To what extent? Are they ready to move from managers to leaders? Are you?
- Can they communicate the vision or are they stuck on day-to-day minutia?
- Can they provide clear goals for the team or are they micro-managers?
Just as importantly, the rest of your people must be ready for the authority and responsibility that goes with it. Most people are so used to working in command-and-control structures that they can get lost when it comes to self-management.
The best form of training that has worked for us at Nearsoft is to mix in people who have participated in a self-managed team with newbies.
In the end, each organization is different and you'll have to experiment to discover what will work best for you.
References & Further Reading
1. Self-Organizing Agile Teams: A Grounded Theory, by R Hoda
2. Agile Project Management: Creating Innovative Products, by Jim Highsmith
3. Leading a self-organizing team, by Mike Cohn
4. The Myth of Self-Organizing Teams, by Jeffrey Palermo
5. Self-Managed Teams Are Effective Teams, by Brittany Hunter