Thoughts on Self Organising Teams

April 26, 2012 § 1 Comment

Notes: 1) I wrote this post a year ago before I mothballed this blog site and lost my domain name. I’m not really wanting to get back blogging often but I have a couple of things I want to write about in the medium term. 2) Ironically the team I’m presently on and the one I used for the basis of this post has drifted into a non-sustainable tactical mode that isn’t enormously self-organised – I talk about this at the end.

I’ve written a couple of posts on Self Organising Vs Managed teams in the past. Over the last year I’ve had the good fortune to work on a team that is predominately self-organising, and wanted to write up the main learning points that stick out. I’ve written this from the perspective of facilitating a self organising team. This is also against a backdrop where a dev team has a high degree of ownership over its codebase, and is of a small to medium size (around 10-12 people). If the conditions aren’t right to begin with, then it often doesn’t matter if a team is self-organising or not.

Organising Self Organisation?

The first sub-topic to address is the meta. That is of how much should you organise a ‘self organising’ team. I once worked on a team where the PMs thought that a strong dev team would somehow ‘grow’ out of the various developers they had scattered around a room. Like monkeys and typewriters.

And of-course it really didn’t work. Deadlines missed, low morale, software written to a dubious and inconsistent standard. I’m sure the project managers who were there at the time would now say that the project was successful and use it as a highlight for their careers, but the fact is that the whole thing sucked massively, almost comically so.

Staying with monkeys and typewriters, of course if you have the right monkeys then they should be allowed to crack on and solve the problem they are there to solve. But where this works there is usually some kind of organisation in place, no matter how subtle and transparent  it may be, and we’re talking about a team consisting of seriously good monkeys. A rarity.

I know that on the face of it the idea of organising a self-organising team sounds contradictory, that a self-organising team should surely lack any sort of dictatorial or outside behavorial influence. But I do think that there needs to be some founding principles at work. Just like tolerance needs intolerance of intolerance, I think a self-organising team needs some organising to be self organising.

Good People

I’m not someone who has reservoirs of faith and patience for being able to work with just any plucked-out-the-ether developer. And if I’m honest this was one of the hardest things about being a consultant, because that’s exactly what’s expected of you. I’ve worked with many developers who simply just shouldn’t be developers. I’ve been on projects where I’ve spent most of my time refactoring and deleting code written by others and just hoping that I’m going faster than they are as to have some kind of net benefit.

The reality is that if you are tasked with running a team and you want it to be a ‘strong’ team, then you really need to ability to hire and fire. You need to be able to populate the team with the best people that you can get your hands on. If you don’t have this level of responsibility and you’re told just to suck it up and work with whoever, then you’re really up against it. In a team you need leaders and people with exemplary skills that inspire others to up their own skill-sets and abilities; everyone working together to help each other along. You also need people that are fun too, and everybody in the team needs to be generally easy to get on with.

Challenges I’ve faced include having to convince business stakeholders that developers are not a commodity that can be easily swapped in and out. It’s a battle that’s never really won as stakeholders come and go, and usually they never lack conviction in their own opinions. Talking in terms of objective evidence and waste/risk helps, and this is where a team facilitator can play a useful role. Another challenge is making sure that inevitable attrition is mitigated, however tough it may be to do so.

Empowering (Delegation)

It just so happens that if you’re tasked with facilitating a team populated with bright, good people, then you’ll probably find that for any given job they’ll be someone on the team who is better at doing it than you, or more likely, has the drive to do it.

I’m consistently and pleasantly surprised by the varied skill-sets of those around me. There are people with quite finely-grained nitty-gritty problem solving skills, then there are others who possess a natually gifted systems-overview way of thinking. There are those adept at getting close to the business and understanding their wants and needs, and conversely there are those who see the business as dark hooded figures, whispering and scheming on the sidelines.

The point is that when working with creative, intelligent people, then the job title changes from that of leadership to facilitation. I’ve little doubt that certain circumstances call for the type of robust expletive laden leadership offered by Gordon Ramsay in his kitchen, but where there are highly skilled people involved such as in the software delivery industry, then this approach doesn’t really work. You let people who are able to solve complex problems get on and solve them. As a facilitator your job is to help make that happen by mostly getting out of the way, or to muck in and help if your contribution as a task-executor is useful.

I’ve worked on a team where the facilitator wasn’t a Gordon Ramsey, but was instead a wannabe primary school teacher. ‘Have you written a FIT test?’ That’s good. ‘Have you you asked the BA about the requirement before starting work?’ Ha-ha! Just checking. It makes you want to just tell someone like this to get out of your face and to basically fuck off.

I think as a team faciliator you need to be able to trust someone to do a job. But admittedly there are subtleties. Knowing who has the relevant skills for a particular problem helps, and trying to avoid the situation where only he/she can do a certain job also helps. Some people enjoy taking on responsibility and a degree of accountability, others would rather get on and code. Making suggestions about what certain people could work on if they wanted to is not an altogether bad idea.

Mouthy Team

You need a ‘mouthy team’. The Agile stuff of retrospectives helps, and perhaps more so does the location of the office-place with respect to nearest agreeable pub. Really though, it comes back to having good people in the team. The team needs people who can challenge ideas and practices, to offer an opposing way of doing things that works.

You then also need people who can take critism, including yourself. Team members need to be able to watch other team members piss all over their best and brightest ideas. Not everyone is tactful about it – we are geeks after all. If instead you want people who’ll always listen attentively with words of support, then you can always hire consultants.

Sometimes a decision does need making, particularly in murky waters where there is much contention. In this case it’s about getting buy-in from the team and choosing a direction people are happy with, even if people acknowledge that there’s an element of gambling. I’ve read that this is a drawback of self-organising teams – inertia of making strategic choices – but I’ve rarely encountered a situation where competing views jostle against each other and logic doesn’t win out to pick a solution. If you have personalities in the team that stick to a position and refuse to budge despite logic and evidence… then either feedback needs to be given or the topic of ‘hiring and firing’ needs to be revisited.


Energy is something a team facilitator can bring to the table. Whether it’s keeping a stand-up on a Monday morning upbeat, organising team lunches, or encouraging brown bag sessions and tech talks. The facilitator may not be the person that comes up with the idea of a particular technical talking session, but they should be able to make it happen if someone feels it’s important. The facilitator should also be able to cope with the more mundane stuff that needs doing. Someone needs to plan meetings such as iteration planning meetings, kick-offs and retrospectives. Some of this can be delegated to those that enjoy this kind of stuff, but it needs taking care of. Some are better at this than others.

Management Support

You need a good manager to give the team some space by which it can become encapsulated and be to judged on its results. The team must also be supported in the occasional battle (i.e. the prioritisation of technical platform work over business requirements is a popular one). At the same time managers must resist from standing completely back and allowing teams to self-organise themselves to effective failure. There is also people rotation to think about – why should one team have a set a talented people in contrast to other teams, shouldn’t they be shared around? Spare a thought for the beleaguered manager, his/her job is never easy.

It’s not a religion.

As I said in the notes at the top, the team I’m currently in and had in mind when I wrote this post has drifted away from being self-organising, and has gone into more of a non-sustainable tactical way of working. If people are happy to, when you’ll attempting to climb over a large challenge then sometimes you have to tolerate silos and to ask people to stay in particular work-streams for a short duration. It’s not ideal and you need the backing of the team to do this, but sometimes going tactical to get shit done can be fun too. The trick that we haven’t attempted yet is to crawl back.



  • Charles

    Welcome back, Jon. I look forward to a follow-up on how your current team navigates the road ahead.

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