What you got wrong about Self-Organization

When people start out in the Agile world, they hear one term over and over again, as it would be something new, something mind changing.

SELF-ORGANIZATION is sold like the holy grail.

I want to show you, why self-organization is not a new thing, why it stills needs direction, and why it also is not that simple.


…isn't self-organization important?

Yes, it is, and it's necessary for a team to perform well. Teams need to be able to decide on their own and have freedom and empowerment to do so.

On the other hand, we also need to understand, self-organization is nothing new and the default. Command-and-Control style leadership is something men-made. Get back in time, even before humans existed: Atoms had to organize on their own without something telling them, after that molecule and bacteria and so on.

They didn't have anyone telling them how to do it. The same way animals and humans interacted for thousands of years. The first humans didn't have a CEO standing with a stop-watch behind their back.

As soon as you don't give direction and look away, self-organization happens, if you want it or not. Look at the lunch break in a company. Nobody needs to organize that and make a project plan for whom to sit where. Still, it works.

Self-Organization Needs Direction

Even that self-organization works out of the box, it needs direction. It needs someone to tell if it's good or bad and the team is working in the right direction.

Because if you don't tell them the way, how should they know. If you involve teams in the process of building this way together, even better.

Without setting your expectations and also checking in on it, self-organization may result in an unproductive way.

Self-Organization needs Commitment

In one of my last articles I talk about freedom, trust and responsibility. And that's precisely what self-organized teams need. They need to be given a commitment from the organization, that they are free to decide within a given range, and they are trusted in doing the decisions with their given freedom.

Make sure the team knows their boundaries: What are they allowed to do and what not. Give them a safety net.

A team without the commitment from the organization won't be able to do great work. They will always work with their handbrake on and spend more time justifying and shying away from decisions, than they will add value.

On the other hand, you will also need a commitment from the developers (or any other teams). A commitment about mutual trust and they take on the responsibility and do the best they can.

It's work

Getting self-organization right is a lot of work and needs continuous improvement and observation.

What works in one team, doesn't have to work in another. Another big factor is also the maturity of a team. For more information, check my article about freedom.

Daniel Hauck

Daniel Hauck