Self organizing teams: The bad news

TL;DR: Self-organizing teams still need to be one thing to deserve the designation: They have to be organized!

The problem with self organizing teams

They aren’t. Self organizing teams are a great thing and work wonderfully. The only problem with this is that most teams are neither. They are neither a team, nor are they organized.

What’s a team again?

According to Kevin Grigsby

A team is a group of persons linked together for a common purpose. For the most part, teams consist of persons with complementary skills organized to function cooperatively as a group. (Grigsby, 2008)

Many so-called teams I see nowadays are linked together by the fact that they work for the same company and were available when the project started. Or when the project needed more people-power. Team-members sometimes have complimentary skills in a technical way but rarely in a psychological way.

And the part of “organized to function cooperatively as a group” is more often than not contradicted by personalized rewards, too much work in progress (e.g. 7 people working in 5 different projects and are all present only in one of them) and other elements of corporate dysfunction.

How about organized?

David Allen, famous for his getting things done approach to organization, has written and talked a lot about this, and according to him, basically being organized means knowing what is going on with relevance to you, what are the desired outcomes and what are the next actions.

Yet organization takes time. And sometimes specific personality traits. A lot of the teams that are “self organized by decree” have neither. And very often they don’t have any frameworks on how to self-organize.

Self organized is no anarchy

Just to make this abundantly clear: “Do whatever you like” does not make a team self organized! Being mutually accountable for example means that there are ways how team members know what to expect from their peers. Striving for a common goal implies that there is a shared understanding on what that goal is and how to reach it. And of course the teams has to be able to discuss things like schedules and dependent activities with outside parties. So there has to be some knowledge on how far the team has come so far and what is up ahead for the future.

Self organized means you have to do it yourself!

Remember where the whole “self organized teams” stuff came from. It was born out of the knowledge that decisions should be made, where the knowledge resides. And with regard to team organization this knowledge is within the team.
My main point is that we don’t want line managers or process specialists who have no insight at all into the dynamics of the team in question. It does /not/ mean that there is no organization inside the team. On the contrary. It’s right there in the name: “self organized teams!” And perhaps sometimes it is a smart idea to have people inside the team take care of some organization. According to Grigsby “[…] leadership moves from member to member based on the topic or task assigned and the member’s skills.”

till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

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