How To Lead Self Organising Teams

November 6, 2019

The easiest way to understand what self organising is is to understand what it is not. People and teams are usually instructed on how to work, who to work with, what project they will be assigned to and in extreme micromanaging cases be assigned specific tasks from management. Self organising is the opposite: where people own the decision of how to get work done themselves, and management are simply there to serve and facilitate.

Self organising = Individuals organising around work > Work being organised around individuals

Instead of taking a chunk of work and assigning it to top-down defined teams, we can instead support individuals in finding the best and most effective people and process to tackle it.

This leads us to the main justification behind self organising:

“Individuals closest to the process of getting stuff done have the most information about how to do that successfully. “

For example, it’s the individuals who work together, understand each others strengths, how their processes work, how complex the code is, and who’s on vacation this week. The further away you get from that person, the less informed the decision is.

Generic Decision Map Example

Generic Decision Map Example

To review where those kind of decisions are made, you can draw a decision map for a particular team or project, starting with the work and mapping the closest to farthest stakeholders who made decisions on it. Along this map, you can retrospect each decision that was made and mark who and where it was made. There you can evaluate whether it was made in the right place, or if someone closer to the task could have made a more informed and effective decision (spoiler: sometimes there’s good reasons that someone further away should make a call). It’s a useful exercise to try later on to see how self organising is going for you.

When decisions are made in a self organising way, it leads to a number of benefits:

  1. Higher efficiency - Decisions made closer to the work means the team is more likely to choose a more effective path forward.
  2. Improved quality - Decisions made with the most information possible means less things will go wrong.
  3. Increased ownership and autonomy - Being able to decide how you organise is a huge power shift towards increased autonomy.
  4. Increased continuous improvement - When people take responsibility for how they work, they also start to feel empowered to improve it.

The “Self Organising” Scale

Self organising is not a box that you check or a goal that you achieve and then move on. Self organising works along a scale, and every decision you make throughout your week lays somewhere on it. Your org/team will have an average place on the scale, but it’s our job to help move that pointer over time by continuing to make more and more self organising driven decisions.

The “Self Organising” Scale

The “Self Organising” Scale

The scale above shows how organisation might change over time as you move from no self organising to a fully self organising team. There are a few factors that change over this scale:

  1. Who owns decisions the following:
    1. Solutions
    2. Processes
    3. People organisation
  2. How tasks are are assigned/picked up.

With no self organising, you see tasks assigned to individuals by senior mgmt, while they continue to dictate everything through a specific solution, process and how teams should be organised. As we move along the scale we start to see those decisions being made closer to the individuals doing the work and finally with them owning all decisions around the solution, process and organisation of the work.

What role does management play?

The goal of management has to shift while moving to a more self organising culture. At one extreme of the scale we have micromanagement, where tasks are individually assigned, and at the other end we have macromanaging, where only high level direction is set. There is an even more extreme end to the self organising scale where there is no top down organisation at all, but that gets pretty meta and deserves another blog post (or a chat over coffee). So, for now, we will work within those boundaries on the scale.

Management’s role on the “Self Organising” Scale

Management’s role on the “Self Organising” Scale

First and foremost, management must take on the behaviour of servant leadership. This means to that their primary responsibility is to be there for the team and the individuals around them, help them understand what’s working, help fix things that aren’t.

As we discussed before, self organising is not binary, and while we work across the decision making scale management needs to aim to work in the corresponding way. If the org is not very self organising, management likely needs to be a lot more hands on:

  1. In this first mentoring phase, leaders will help teams understand the options and pros and cons to each. They will strongly influence the outcomes here. For example, one thing a mentor might talk about is the different types of decision making methods (consensus, consulting, informing) and might help a team work out which to use.
  2. Next, the relationship becomes more of a coaching one. The manager will know the right questions to ask to the team to help them realise the important factors of organising effectively. For example asking, “Who has the most knowledge about X? Who is looking for opportunities to develop Y? Which actions are needed to get us from A to B?”
  3. As we move along the scale, the final position of management should be entirely facilitation only when it’s required. This means simply ensuring an outcome is reached, and providing some framework to make it happen. For example, organising a decision making meeting, documenting any outcome etc.

Experience vs Exchange Matrix

Experience vs Exchange Matrix

This shift along the scale from mentorship to facilitation is a really powerful method for enabling scaling and growth for everyone. The above diagram shows two factors: “Experience”, which is how much knowledge is needed, and “Type of exchange” which describes how the manager interacts with a team. As they move towards facilitation, the knowledge required becomes much less and the responsibility changes from teaching to simply helping people realise their understanding. As teams grow, the autonomy they get from self organising opens up leadership opportunities for them while also reduces the impact on management who would usually now have a lot more people and decisions to manage. Facilitating is much cheaper than micromanagement, it’s a win all round!

Regardless of where an org is on the scale, it’s always management’s responsibility to set boundaries around self organising and to clearly communicate expectations. This is done by setting a scope.

For example, decisions that might be in scope for the team to own:

  • Who will work on a project
  • Whether they will use kanban/scrum/their own thing
  • What days/hours they will work on the project

Things that might be out of scope:

  • Whether they will get paid a bonus for completing the project
  • Choosing to hire/fire someone
  • (If these things do sound like they should be in scope to you, you should read more about holocracy )

Other Thoughts

  • It’s hard to be completely self organising (and you probably don’t want to be), so aim to stay out of the two extremes of the scale.
  • Self organising is hard because it requires less control from management, and there are no easy steps or practices to follow. It’s about mindfulness in decision making, and understanding that the closer you are to self organising the more effective the outcomes will be.
  • Every individual also has their own needs. Some people prefer to work at different places on the scale. No where is wrong, but it’s our goal to help move and learn as we go from no self org to full self org across the scale.

Summary

  • Self organising = Individuals organising around work > Work being organised around individuals
  • Self organising works because individuals closest to the process of getting stuff done have the most information about how to do that successfully.
  • Management supports the change by moving through mentoring to coaching to facilitating, while ensuring safe boundaries exist within the process.
  • Self organising enables org scaling and growth opportunities for all individuals.

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