Mike MacDonagh's Blog

Somewhere in the overlap between software development, process improvement and psychology

What does a self-organising team really mean? Organisation!

The idea of a self-organising team is pretty established in agile software development, as a (post-)agile coach/mentor I sometimes find myself working with teams who are trying to self-organise. Here’s my approach for transitioning a team from being externally organised to becoming autonomous and self-organising.

The first thing to point out is that I believe that the result of a self-organising team practice is an organisation. I don’t know what the the organisation will be ahead of time, that’s what the team work out. What I do (and I think others should do) as an agile mentor/coach is:

  • Bring to the team methods and techniques they can use to self-organise
  • Information of self-organising and how to interact with other teams in an organisation
  • Experience of different structures and behaviours
  • Facilitation and support of the organisation

It’s not my job to organise a team, it’s my job to help them organise themselves.

Being an architect/designer at heart I take a simple approach to this kind of thing and think about it in terms of mission, structure and behaviour.

Mission

Team’s need to have a purpose. I believe in team’s seizing autonomy and declaring their purpose, even in a complex bureaucratic organisation. So long as senior management are willing to let people they employ to do a complex technical job actually do a complex technical job then there tends not to be a problem. Unfortunately it sometimes takes enlightened leaders to do this but I’ve seen more and more of them in both the private and public sector. A team needs to know it’s purpose and agree on it.

Structure

Structurally there are some nice ways of working out who should be in a team and what their role is. I recommend using competencies rather than roles. Competencies are a description of the skills required to deliver the mission of the team and come in levels ranging from the most basic to the most advanced form of e.g. Tester. Either grab some from a suitable process.

Get the team together and get them to score themselves on the range of competencies required. This achieves a couple of things:

  • Builds mutual understanding between team members of where the various skills lie and what level they’re at leading to mutual respect and avoiding misunderstandings around what people are “meant” to do
  • Establishes whether the team has enough coverage of the required skills for the job, without this knowledge how can a team commit to anything?
Competencies don’t need to be met my an individual, a combination of the individuals involved might meet the required competencies overall and that’s great when they, and the rest of the team, understand how they fit together.
An externally imposed organisation chart does not meet these goals.

Behaviour

Team’s need to know how they’re going to work so they need to understand their functions. As a starter I’d suggest that software development teams have the following functions:

  • Production (delivery of working product)
  • Communication (both internally with customers and with external stakeholders)
  • Decision making
    • Way of Working
    • Buy-in to the mission and direction
    • High level scope
    • Changes to agreed scope

A true agile team does all of these things as it includes all of the people and skills necessary (from devs, testers, users, customers, ops people etc.) to achieve them. The team is the vehicle for doing these things.

Each of these things is the tip of a fairly large iceberg. But the team need to work on understanding their Way of Working to do the production job. The team need to agree how they’ll communicate with each other and externally. Both of these are Ways of Working decisions. All function in a team comes down to decision making. Ways of working, communication techniques, scope management etc. need to be constantly refined which means you need constant decision making within a team.

Even buy-in to the team mission and direction (planning and/or technical) is a decision making process. It often happens implicitly with someone charismatic selling a vision and everyone kind-of nodding but that’s not the only way of doing it.

Different decision types deserve different methods

Just because a team is groovy and agile doesn’t mean that every decision should be fully democratic. For example when doing a customer demo to see if the product is on track it’s not normally open to a general vote on whether the product meets the customer’s needs or not. Usually the customer tells you and you have to put up with it.

I’ve written some blogs before on methods of decision making, methods for selecting a decision making model and some case studies applying all of this. The basic process is:

– identify the different categories of decisions the team needs to make
– identify (using a variation of the Vroom-Jago model) the mechanisms the team will use to make each decision type
– facilitate the decison making process reminding the team of their chosen mechanisms

Output

The output of a self-organising practice is an organisation. Since I believe in honesty and transparency I think that the best way to define and communicate this stuff is in a Team Charter. A Team Charter can simply be:

Mission

Some blurb about what the team does – Mission statement

Assertion of rights the team assumes – Autonomy

Who the team is

Who’s in the team, what’s their ability, how do they contribute to the required competencies – Structure

How the team works

A little bit about the practices the team uses. Such as using a continuous flow model, an iterative approach etc. Including the decisions the team makes and how they make them – Decision Making

If you’d like me to help your team self-organise get in touch. Do you have any other ideas on self-organising? Do you use a different approach?

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One response to “What does a self-organising team really mean? Organisation!

  1. Pingback: What does “Agile at Scale” mean? « Mike MacDonagh's Blog

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