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A self-organizing Developers is..

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The concept of self-organization is critical to any teamwork and organizational success. The Agile Manifesto - which is a foundation for several development frameworks such as Scrum, Kanban, XP etc. also covers self-organizing teams as one of 12 principles. However, the concept of self-organizing can sometimes be confusing. A self-organizing team is more than just that knows what needs to be done. It is a team that has a healthy culture of competition and growth, built on mutual trust.

Let's take a look at what self-organizing teams really are and how to make one.

What is self-organizing?

To truly understand self-organizing teams in Scrum, let us first understand the concept of self-organizing.

As per Wikipedia "Self-organization, also called spontaneous order, is a process where some form of overall order arises from local interactions between parts of an initially disordered system. The process can be spontaneous when sufficient energy is available, not needing control by any external agent".

In Scrum, self-organizing teams know how to accomplish their work on their own without being directed by others outside the team, not even the Scrum Master. So, teams that are capable to plan, allocate, track, complete their own work without any external help are self-organizing teams. Unlike traditional teams, they don't wait for managers to assign them work. Instead, they know 'what' needs to be done and more importantly 'how'. The other important aspect of a self-organizing Developers is, they are able to decide 'how much'work can be done.

The key characteristics of a self-organizing team are:
  • Teamwork and collaboration
  • Competency
  • Scrum values - Focus, Openness, Respect, Courage and Commitment
  • Constant improvement and growth
  • Sense of ownership
  • Continuity
Examples of self-organization

Self-organization is not confined to Agile teams. In fact, it is applicable to several different systems from real-life. I heard this one from of my coach friends. Consider ants as an example. Hundreds, thousands, or maybe millions of ants work together to achieve the same goal to gather and store food. Is there a leader ant? Regardless of weather conditions or altitudes, they move together in a synchronized manner as if they were not individual insects but a single animal.

And the same can be seen in a flocks of birds or a herd of sheep. Think of any team that doesn't have a leader, and all team members share the same amount of responsibilities. Those are self-organizing teams.

Why is self-organization important in Scrum?

In an Agile environment, self-organizing teams can prove to be beneficial if implemented in the right way. Let's take a look at some benefits of a self-organizing team.

Enhanced Agility:

Self-organizing teams can quickly determine the tasks they need to work on and how to meet the corresponding deadlines. Such teams are more Agile and can easily respond to market changes.

The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

This is quoted in the 12 Principles of Agile Manifesto. When teams are self-organizing, it paves way for best solutions, innovation, well-architected products and great designs. This will also lead to sustainable products.

Increased focus on quality:

Self-organizing teams focus more on customer expectations than just performing what their manager has asked them to do. Such teams take customer feedback seriously and build products that align with the needs of markets.

Efficient team management:

A self-organizing Agile team is responsible for tracking and assigning their work and progress. Therefore, organizations don't need to spend extra resources to manage and track tasks, progress, deadlines etc.

Enhanced employee satisfaction:

In self-organizing teams, team members pick their own tasks and set their own schedules. This increases the level of motivation and makes the employees more satisfied.

The process of self-organization

While self-organized teams are trained to work on their own, they can't become self-organizing on their own. Self-organization is not an overnight phenomenon but a continuous evolutionary process.

In a Scrum Team, the Scrum Master's role is to make the Developers self-organizing. "Coaching the Developers in self-organizing and cross-functionality" is one of Scrum Master's services to the Developers.

While self-organizing is about the Developers able to manage their own work, cross-functional behavior indicates that the Developers members have all the required skills to perform the required tasks. Neither of these take place without the strenuous efforts of the entire Scrum Team and the organization, in an arduous journey of building the Developers towards better Agility.

How can a Scrum Master create a self-organizing team?
Training

All the Developers members need to be trained to understand what a self-organizing team is and how to get there. They will require hard skills to get a better understanding and they will also need soft skills training to seamlessly collaborate and communicate with other team members. A Scrum Master helps Developers to go through the initial learning. In general, the Scrum Master fulfills the role of a Trainer, Coach, and Mentor.

Coaching

In the initial stages of a team formation, the Scrum Master acts as a coach who guides them through challenging situations. The coach is responsible for helping team members to think and guide them to make decisions. Gradually, when team members learn how to remove impediments, collaborate and take ownership of their work, the role of the coach gradually diminishes.

Scrum values

The Scrum Master coaches Scrum Teams on Scrum values - Focus, Openness, Respect, Courage and Commitment. If these values are inculcated and followed by the Scrum Team members, trust is developed which helps to grow in the long run -  both teams and organizations.

Self-organizing teams also require a transformation in the way the team members think - means the mindset transformation from "I" to "We".  The Scrum Master plays a vital role, not just for the team, but acts as a change agent for the entire organization to transform the thinking.

Mentoring

A self-organizing team needs some mentoring to maintain team balance and grow their skills. A mentor helps the team stay motivated and grow together with the help of the experience and subject matter expertise gained over the years. 

Step-back

The Scrum Masters should be able to make a decision for themselves when to 'step-in' and when to 'step-back'. If a Scrum Master steps-in whenever a Developers member has an impediment, then there is no scope for the team member to think independently to resolve the impediment, and eventually the Scrum Master becomes an impediment for the Developers pursuit of self-organizing.

Instead the Scrum Master should spot opportunities to step-back, so that the Developers is able to organize themselves and remove their own impediments. Of course, there is a 'Last Responsible Moment till the Scrum Master must await to step-in.

Conclusion

The ability of teams to self-organize has become critical to all organizations. Self-organization ensures the teams are efficient and customer focused. A team might take some time to understand the concept of a self-organizating team and eventually become one. But with the right training, coaching, mentoring, and guidance, the road to self-organization becomes easy. Also, this must be construed as a continuous learning process, and not a destination. And that is why, 'self-organizing' is more apt rather than 'self-organized'.

References
  1. www.agilemanifesto.org
  2. Scrum Guide from www.ScrumGuides.org
  3. https://gaiku.io/blog/self-organizing-team
  4. https://www.planview.com/resources/articles/what-is-self-organizing-team/





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Author

Suresh Konduru

The author is a Certified Scrum Trainer (CST) certified by Scrum Alliance. He has nearly 25 years of working experience in Fortune 500 companies globally in the areas of Agile transformation, Agile coaching, Scrum training, Org change transition, Product development, Project management etc. He conducts workshops for Scrum Alliance flagship certifications – CSM, CSPO, A-CSM, A-CSPO etc. Suresh uses real-world examples, group learning activities to make the workshops learning as well as fun. Suresh trained more than 12,000 professionals and nearly 100 corporates globally. He is rated consistently 5 out of 5 on Google reviews.