Self-Organization: What Your Scrum Team Can Learn from Kindergarteners
Self-organizing teams are at the heart of Scrum. When working on a complex problem, a single person can’t have all the answers, so the team needs to figure out what it can do to work most effectively. Self-organization also works in contexts other than software development, even in some surprising situations—such as in early elementary school classrooms.
While listening to a story on a local NPR station about the challenges of teaching kindergarteners when some of the students have had pre-K classes and some haven’t, I found some familiar themes in the descriptions of the strategies schools are using to bridge the differences. Educators discovered that while going to preschool can have benefits, the advantages seem to disappear by third grade, as measured by standardized test scores. While testing isn’t everything, it is something the education system measures, so administrators decided to experiment with new approaches to teaching, including being more flexible about what students’ tasks were.
As the story describes it, “rather than telling all of her students where to go and what activities to do as one big group—[the teacher] creates learning stations with small group activities that pull kids into learning through themes.” Which is to say, the students self-organize into groups to accomplish tasks that interest them, which also allows the students to support and engage with each other. The students learn at their own pace, leading to improved performance overall.
There are some analogies to Scrum and Scrum teams here, especially during a transition to agile. A major theme of Scrum is that command-and-control approaches are not effective for accomplishing complex problem-solving tasks. A major challenge when organizations adopt Scrum is changing from a culture where the team looks to a leader for instructions on what to do to a culture where the leader’s role is one of facilitation. Learning is certainly a complex problem, so it makes sense that students can benefit from an application of agile principles to their studies.
Applying agile principles to learning, while not ubiquitous, is not new. Some have even applied agile principles more completely to education, such as the agile classroom or Agile Schools. What interests me about the NPR story is that, as much as allowing a group of students to self-organize was counter to the teacher’s instincts, it was effective. If this can work with a group of early elementary school students, why are some organizations reluctant to give their teams of experienced software developers the same freedom?
Much of the resistance to agile adoption is having to unlearn habits and rules that no longer apply. But once teams get used to the new way of working, many agile principles and practices resonate with people because they feel natural. Self-organization may well be one of these, considering it seems to work at so many levels. The only way to know for sure is to try.