In Scrum, development teams are guided to be self-organized. The concept of self-organization is very important in Scrum and Agile philosophies. The Scrum framework prescribes that teams should be self-sufficient when it comes to achieving the sprint goal and performing their tasks. “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams”, the Agile Manifesto states. This raises a few questions: What are self-organizing teams? Why do they need self-organization? And how can a scrum master guide a team to be self-organizing? Could they work for non-Agile companies?

What are self-organizing teams?

Self-organizing teams, as the name suggests, take responsibility and manage their own tasks and don’t rely on a manger to tell them what to do. Self-organizing teams choose how best to accomplish their work, rather than being directed by managers outside the team. Members of the team have the best skills, abilities and knowledge for the job, which make them the right people to select the most efficient path to achieve the sprint goal. It requires (and implies) that teams actively experiment with approaches, learn from failures and continuously adjust. That’s why, in the context of Scrum, self-organization should probably be called ‘self-optimization’.

Why is self-organization important?

Self-organizing teams are important and beneficial for any Agile team. Why? Here are a few good reasons:

  • More efficient team process. Self-organizing teams are responsible for achieving the sprint goal. They are free to select their own path, which will most likely be a more efficient path. This does require that teams are cross-skilled in many ways.
  • Quality and speed. Self-organization improves speed and quality so self-organizing teams become increasingly efficient.
  • Facilitate learning. Teams are constantly on the road of self-optimization, because they learn from failure and successes. Although self-organization requires learning, learning in itself is an advantage of self-organization.
  • Improves ownership. When a team has the autonomy to self-organize, the team members will feel more responsible for their work and the sprint result. This will definitely increase the sense of ownership that team members feel.
  • Improves motivation. On top of all of this, increased autonomy and self-organization improve motivation within the team.

What does it take to build a self-organizing team?

Let’s take a look at 7 essentials of a self-organizing team:

  • Motivation. Team motivation is key! Team members should be focused and interested in their work.
  • Teamwork. Team members should work as a team rather than as a group of individuals. They should manage their work as a group, so encourage teamwork.
  • Trust and respect. It’s important that team members trust and respect each other. They should believe in each other and go the extra mile to help resolve issues.
  • Commitment. Committed individuals are vital in a self-organizing team. Committed team members communicate with each other, and are aware of their task to deliver, individually and as a group. There are various meetings, such as the daily stand-up meeting, that encourage team discussions and commitment.
  • Continuity. The team should be together for a reasonable duration to grow into a self-organizing team and stay that way. So, changing its composition every now and then might not help. Continuity is important for the team.
  • Improvement. Team members of a self-organizing team should be continuously improving their own skills and recommend innovative ideas and improvements.
  • Competency. Team members need to be competent for the job. They need to have the right skills, qualities and mindset to have confidence in their job. This way they need little direction from above.

What else? You’ll need a scrum master who can coach and facilitate any of the above ingredients to set the team on the right track and help them along the way. He or she is primarily responsible for making sure there’s a good working environment, which is a must for the blossoming of a self-organizing team. So, a self-organizing team still requires mentoring and coaching, but doesn’t require “command and control.”

Also, senior management should ensure that they don’t get in the way of the team’s work; they need to act as supports rather than distractions. Senior management should also keep in mind that often it’s essential that team members fail before they can deliver and that a self-organizing team is not made in one day.

How to guide a team to be self-organizing?

Creating a self-organizing team is far more challenging than you might think. Use a three-step process: 

Step 1. Training. Team members need to get the desired skill set. Provide any needed classroom or on-the-job training to make each employee competent. Also think about behavioral and communication training. After this, you can assume the team has the capabilities to exhibit self-organizing behaviors.

Step 2. Coaching. Now, it’s important that the scrum master adopts a coaching style to help team members with any difficulties. Some people may require more support and guidance at the beginning. At the end of this phase, a team will be self-organizing, but it’s important to keep your eye open and keep observing and listening to all team members. A self-organizing team needs to keep adapting and improving.

Step 3. Mentoring. Keeping a team self-organizing is an ongoing process. You’re never really done. Once the team is self-organizing, the key is to sustain this for the longer run. The scrum master should always be a mentor who helps the team go to the next level. A self-organizing team doesn’t need “command and control,” but it does always need coaching and mentoring.

Conclusion

You now know how self-organizing teams could benefit you or your company. You know what’s essential to have a self-organizing team, and three steps to guide a team to self-organization. Keep in mind that building a self-organizing team is an ongoing process, and you’re never done. Also, self-organization is not only useful in Scrum, but might be good for any kind of project. What does your organization need?