Developing Self-Organizing Agile Teams | TechWell

Developing Self-Organizing Agile Teams

Agile teams are supposed to be self-organizing, but self-organization may not happen on its own. It runs counter to the way in which people usually work. While it may be hard to find the right way to motivate a person for a particular behavior, helping teams develop an agile culture can improve a team's effectiveness.

The challenges to self-organization often extend beyond the immediate team to the overall influence the larger organization has over everyone involved. Many of the feedback processes in organizations encourage behaviors that are counter to agile values. A classic example is the performance review, which often emphasizes individual goals rather than the influence a person’s work has on the team.

This idea of someone who indirectly helps a team isn’t new to agile. In Peopleware, Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister described a catalyst role. This is another example of how agile methods—rather than causing problems—cause existing problems to come to the forefront.

Another challenge to self-organization is that existing managers have a hard time letting go of command and control approaches to organizing work. Even though motivation often works better than command and control for agile teams, you may still hear organizations new to agile speak of assigning issues rather than teams' self selecting tasks or people treating the ScrumMaster as a manager rather than as a facilitator or a servant-leader.

As Dan Pink discussed in his book Drive, motivation is hard. Sometimes the effects of a "motivating behavior" are counterintuitive, and the act of reinforcing behavior you see as positive can have the opposite effect, as described by Goodhart’s Law.

While there are some standard approaches to try, be creative—or even, ask your team. For example, one experiment involving teachers showed that up-front bonuses, which could be lost, worked better to improve test scores than giving bonuses after reaching a goal.

It might sound counterintuitive to need to “motivate” people to be self-organizing; it really isn’t. Commanding people to self-organize won’t really work, especially if reward systems elsewhere in the organization encourage contrary behavior.

When you find yourself frustrated over the difficult job of encouraging people to change workstyles, you can take solace that even an economist finds it challenging to motivate his children to perform a basic life skill.

What are your positive—and challenging—experiences with self-organizing teams?

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