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Self-Organizing Agile Team - Is it a Toutology?

In real life will you always have the luxury to select the right team?

Statement (A): We know that some teams which have self-organized itself is much more productive compared to a team with similar set of members where the team organization has been prescribed from outside.

Statement (B): Self- organizing teams will always outperform an equivalent team with an imposed organization.

Is there a difference between the two statements or am I only playing with words?

Actually, the difference is enormous – and – of great practical significance.

To prove statement (A) we need to show examples of self-organizing team outperforming teams which are not self-organizing. Even examples of increase of team productivity through transition from traditional structure to self-organization mode will be sufficient.

On the other hand proving statement (B) is much more difficult – if not impossible.

Even one example of a traditional team being more productive or a fail attempt to improve productivity through self-organization will be sufficient to disprove the statement.

What is the difference between (A) and (B)?
Incidentally, if (B) is true then (A) has to be true – while the reverse is not correct.

Statement (A) can be restated as:

“…SOME self-organizing teams can be significantly more productive…”

And the statement (B) can be reworded as:

“…EVERY team can benefit from self-organization…”

Look at the emphasis on SOME and EVERY – that is the difference between (A) and (B). We can be reasonably sure that (A) is true, but what about (B)?

What happens if (B) is true?
If every team can benefit from self-organization than all you need to do if understand how to achieve it – what are the “do’s and don’ts”? Since most (all?) experts in agile community makes this assumption, there are enough advices available on how to achieve it.

Your task becomes much simpler. Not that it is easy to get a traditional team to self-organize it is much simpler compare to the alternative where you have to decide if the team will be capable of benefiting from self-organization.

What if (B) is not true?
When I say (B) is not true, what I mean is there CAN be teams which will not improve its performance by becoming self-organizing and the performance may even come down.

Let me just rephrase the above statement:

“…there are examples of team which has failed to self-organize or their performance has gone down after self-organization…”

I am sure you can find such examples and I don’t think it would be too difficult to do so.

It is possible to analyze these failures and point out what mistakes were made in the approach and give recommendation on how to avoid such pitfall. However, if the recommendation contains any one of the following then we may be indirectly accepting the fact that (B) is false.

Does it say that the Scrum Master was interfering too much with the working of the team? Does it say that the team needed more time to self-organize? Does it say that some member of the team was too dominating? Does it say that some of the key members of the team could not get along with each other? Does it say that some of the team members were too inexperienced?

In short, is there in suggestion that the team composition or the scrum master needs to be changed or they alter their attitude significantly?

This is as good as saying that this team – given its current composition – cannot self-organize.

In real life will you always have the luxury to select the right team?

  • What if you the team composition is given and cannot be changed?
  • What if the project time frame is too short to get people to change their attitude?
  • What if you cannot find more experienced people?
  • What if your key technical person has an attitude problem?
  • What if two key members of the team cannot get along with each other?

Such things happen in real life – so what should you do? Do you change the composition of the team and try to create a self-organizing team or do you resort to some amount of command and control?

Depending on how you answer the previous question and how firm a believer are you on the effectiveness of self-organization – you can do one of the two things while starting a new project with a new team:

  1. No matter what, you assume that the team will self-organize and work towards that.
  2. You take a pragmatic view of the team composition and decide how much the team can self-organize and how much command & control is needed.

I am sure you would have guessed that I have a leaning towards the second option.

More Stories By Udayan Banerjee

Udayan Banerjee is CTO at NIIT Technologies Ltd, an IT industry veteran with more than 30 years' experience. He blogs at http://setandbma.wordpress.com.
The blog focuses on emerging technologies like cloud computing, mobile computing, social media aka web 2.0 etc. It also contains stuff about agile methodology and trends in architecture. It is a world view seen through the lens of a software service provider based out of Bangalore and serving clients across the world. The focus is mostly on...

  • Keep the hype out and project a realistic picture
  • Uncover trends not very apparent
  • Draw conclusion from real life experience
  • Point out fallacy & discrepancy when I see them
  • Talk about trends which I find interesting

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