Self-Organization makes ‘Agile teams’ more agile!

We talk about self-organization is one of the most important aspect of agile teams. But what is self-organization and how does that happen? Is it easy or hard to self-organize? I get lot of questions like this from teams.

What is self-organization?

A self-organizing system reorganizes itself based on the external stimulation. There could be several possible arrangements when they reorganize. Number of possibilities is limited by the constraints added to the system.  Some of the characteristics of a self-organizing team are:

  1. Team is conveyed what needs to be done. Team understands the vision for the work that needs to be done as a whole, not just the work associated with one member.
  2. Team is empowered to make decisions on how to best perform the task. However, the “Power comes with responsibility”. Team members understand the rules of the team and stick with it.
  3. Team quickly reacts to any unexpected events. This could be change in requirements or change in the team itself, like some one in the team leaving the company.
  4. Leader of the team adds or removes constraints to the team to stimulate it arrange in an optimal way.

Probably, a lot of people are wondering how to transform their team, which has been operating in a command-and-control mode, into a self-organizing team?


I did an exercise in one the local agile meet ups with around 25 people. I made everyone to stand in rows and columns at an arms length. This is the initial setup. I asked every one to chose two people from the group. They are not necessarily their neighbors.

When I say start, they have to move to a position, which is equidistant from the two people they chose. They have to keep moving since the two people they chose also keep moving. So, every one keeps moving until every one reach a position that satisfies the requirement of standing at the same distance from the two they chose. This depicts a self-organizing team, which reacted to a given requirement.


The result was not so perfect, but they got the idea. Every one who participated tried to adjust them to meet the requirement. I noticed couple of issues here. People got too close to each other and started step on each other’s toes and some people made sudden and big moves, which caused the whole group to reorganize again.

This tells me that we can’t just have a group of people together and expect them to self organize. The team members need to be mature enough to self-organize. They need to understand the whole team well.

What would happen if I assigned a manager to the group and ask him to give command to each and every person where to stand. That would take forever for the manager to finish the work. Also, the out come would depend on how good the manager is rather than how good the people in the team are. If we added more requirements, the complexity probably increases exponentially for the manager to finish the task.

Have a good leader:

Before you have a self-organizing team, you need to have a good leader to groom one. Managers need to develop good leadership skills and understand the dynamics of performing teams. Managers need to let the control go and spend the time in more value-added tasks. They need to trust the team members on what ever they are hired for.

Groom a team:

A leader needs to take the team through the classic team building phases of “Forming-Norming-Storming-Performing”.  As the team is in forming phase, the leader needs to encourage the team members on team dynamics like:


Communication between the members of a team is the most important aspect of self-organizing team. The leader of the team should encourage the practices that encourage communication. Some of the agile practices like planning poker for estimation, all planning activities, pair programming, daily stand up meetings help increase the communication among the team members.


Every member of the team needs to establish their credibility so that the rest of the team would have confidence in them. For example, if I know that my architect is credible with his designs, I won’t think twice to go ahead and implement them.

Understand and respect individual’s values:

Every member of the team would have some values. Team needs to identify those values and respect them. If my highest value is punctuality, I wouldn’t expect any one question if I am working 8 hours or not. One thing I did was that I asked every one on my team to identify their top two values. Then I published those to whole company. Now that every one known team members’ values, team members try to stick to it as well as others will think twice before they question the team members on those values.

What’s next? We got a self-organizing team. Do we need the managers anymore? I get this question all the time that if we have a self-organizing team, should we fire all our managers? It is a big misconception. Yes, we need leaders not only to groom a self-organizing team, also to sustain. Read Mike Cohn’s blog to know why a self-organizing teams need managers.

The team I work with is a highly matured and self-organizing team and requires very little supervision.  The team continued to perform normally when the manager was on vacation for a week as well as only DBA on the team left the company. In the later case, one of the members who had the most knowledge about the databases took over the charge. Things got slowed down little bit, but the team responded well for the situation. When one of the two testers was gone on vacation for half of the iteration, developers helped with testing.

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