How to get your team started with self organization

Self organization is a highly recurrent topic when speaking about motivated and happy teams, and I’m a big fan of it. To some of us, it’s because of the sense of purpose, to others the cause of employee engagement and happiness. Whatever your reason is you will find something useful for you and your team by experimenting with self organization.

Being part of the Kaizen team at the Magento Barcelona office we’ve had the fortune to work on self organization with several teams, run many experiments with them and see them mature over the last three years through trial and error.

Self organization comes in many different forms and flavors and, like every complex problem, it has infinite solutions. Moreover, depending on your point of observation, it can have one meaning or another.

DELEGATION AND TRUST

If you manage teams and wonder how to embrace self-organization, it usually starts with treating people like adults, trusting that they will do the right thing and holding them accountable for their decisions, whatever that means for your work and industry. And because you know things can go awry from time to time, you also need teams to have their own mechanism to recognize when trust is being abused or overall expectations are not being met. That mechanism in most cases is just the ability to give feedback to one another, including to and from you.

Giving up the managing part to focus on the business or whatever comes next can sometimes stop you from telling the team what you think because you want to avoid being bossy. If you recognize yourself in that situation, remember that it is still OK to feel upset when your expectations are not met and it’s OK to tell the team how you feel. You aren’t being bossy by doing that, you’re just being yourself.

Letting go of command and control habits can be hard, but it can also have great advantages, among them:

  • More time for learning or improving other skills, focusing on the business or becoming more of a mentor or guide for your team
  • The relief and boost in mental and physical energy that comes from stopping being a control freak
  • The joy that comes from seeing people around growing and being more engaged

Self organization doesn’t happen overnight and fortunately there are ways to get there in a controlled manner. A Delegation Board is a very powerful tool for you to start with.

team-delegation-board

Also Read: What ants can teach us about self organization

WITH GREAT POWER COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY

Some people define self organization as “controlled chaos”. The key to me is the “controlled” part. What prevents a self-organized team from drifting away in unexpected directions is their common goal. Sometimes it can be harder for a team to grasp big picture and overarching goal than keeping a few KPIs (key performance indicators) under control, but it’s only through understanding that underlying goal can a team control their chaos and try something new.

Decision making in self-organized teams, especially newly formed ones, can take forever even with good facilitation. Different personalities and unique backgrounds can make a team stall. One common complaint in these situations is “We need management to provide us with ‘someone’ who can decide this”. That “someone” —  call it a Team Lead or an Architect or any other fancy role with given authority —  defeats the purpose of self organization and is a very common fallback to traditional command and control.

But what if the team had the ability to name that “someone” among them without the need to go through job description redefinition, salary review, reporting line changes and all that comes with it? Wouldn’t that be a great example of self organization? Trust plays a key role in this as the team matures to identify their need for skills rather than authority and they recognize the team members who have those skills.

magento-agile-culture

Also Read: What are OKRs? A good mix of common sense

A CHANGE OF MINDSET

Many young organizations in their early days are just born self-organized. They have not undergone command and control patterns. People in these organizations simply trust each other to do the right thing with the skills available, no matter what the email signature reads.

Bringing self organization into a larger group with a history of traditional hierarchical structure is a totally different story though. Breaking the habit of having managers make decisions for the group can be much harder than expected, not only because of the resistance of those who are losing their control, but also because some people on those teams just do not know how to deal with the novelty of it or simply prefer a well-known command and control structure. Choosing what to work on and how to do it best is just a part of the responsibilities of a self-organized team, but there is much more to that, think for example of:

  1. Presence and commitment to the team and how to help each other
  2. What to expect from each other
  3. How to give feedback to each other
  4. Choosing how to share prizes, external recognition and bonuses
  5. What the team wants to be known for, its identity
  6. What the team bases its actions on, its values
  7. What is acceptable and what is not within the team, which is ultimately the team’s culture

While this is normal to some of us and would never work any other way, others may react to this new undesired burden with a “I didn’t sign up for this!” Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to this. Coaching and facilitation certainly can help, but self organization requires a lot of trust, tons of time and endless practice.

Then why not accepting this week’s challenge and try something new?

Also Read: Trust is everything! Want it? Then start by being vulnerable

CHALLENGES FOR SELF-ORGANIZATION

Here are a few things you can try this week and of course the list can be much longer, so don’t be afraid to add your suggestions in our #vulnerability Slack channel or in the comments below:

  1. Think of something that you and your team are taking for granted because someone else is doing it and see how it would be if you had to do it yourselves.
  2. Collectively within your team, identify the skills and strengths of every team member and make them part of your daily routine (for instance, you could identify the team member who is the most pragmatic and agree that you will ask them to make a final call when pragmatism is needed, etc.)
  3. If you manage a team, try filling in your own Delegation Board together, trusting them to do the right thing while holding them accountable for what they commit to

Try out one or more of these challenges and then tell us how it went, either with the Happy Melly Slack community or below. We can learn from each other.

Want to learn more about Fabio and his team? Read about the three company culture lessons Fabio and his team gained from their agile transformation toward self organization and empowerment.Blog Footer

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