Self-organization doesn’t mean anything goes.

Even in a very small company, there are going to be some restrictions on what a team can do, even if those purely relate to meeting cost constraints requested by those who hold the purse strings. This is one of the reasons why I endorse the Disciplined Agile guideline to “Create semi-autonomous self-organizing teams” as it acknowledges that the degree of autonomy is rarely absolute and will vary widely between contexts even within the same organization.

But assuming the members of a team are ready to self-organize, what needs to be in place to enable them to successfully do so?

The first prerequisite is that there is a shared understanding and buy-in of the project’s vision and expected outcomes. If there is misalignment or confusion there, it will be pretty difficult for self-organization to take place. Just observe a group of preschoolers trying to play football and you will quickly realize that self-organization is not the right answer for their first time out playing.

Second, there needs to be a clear understanding of the boundaries. Without this, some team members might play it too safe and abdicate their authority for making a decision while others accidentally cross forbidden lines. And as these boundaries can change project-to-project, it is a good idea for team members to confirm what they can and can’t do at the onset of each initiative.

Third, there needs to be encouragement and commitment from leadership to help the team self-organize. What this means is that managers need to create the psychological safety required for team members to feel comfortable making decisions and asking questions about what decisions they are able to make. Ensuring that team members and managers are on the same page about decision making authority is critical and exercises such as delegation poker can be used to safely explore jurisdictional limits. Never underestimate the unwillingness of some team members to make decisions as they might have been negatively conditioned to just do what they are told.

Fourth, there needs to be a safety net for the organization and the team in the event something goes wrong with the decisions the team has made. There also does need to be some validation that the team isn’t violating any policies. Checks and balances are required but these should be done in the spirit of lean governance rather than of micromanagement.

Finally, the team needs to have the discipline to document their decisions. The structure or format for this documentation should be context-driven but whatever rules they have come up with for themselves need to be explicit so that there is a clear understanding of how they will be operating, both for themselves as well as for governance authorities.

Self-organization is an admirable goal for teams to aspire to. After all, one of Daniel Pink’s three levers for intrinsic motivation is autonomy and you can’t get much more of that than deciding how you will do your work. But to realize this goal, we must first fulfill the five factors.

(If you liked this article, why not pick up my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on Amazon.com  and on Amazon.ca  as well as a number of other online book stores)

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