What’s Agile? Self-Organizing (Principle #11)

Agile project teams are self-organizing. However, that probably doesn’t mean what you think it means.

The eleventh principle of Agile is:

The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

Principles behind the Agile Manifesto

Self-Organizing Teams Decide For Themselves

A self-organizing team decides a lot as a team, rather than having everything dictated to them by a manager.

Management needs to trust the team to make those decisions that they’re most qualified for. Things like:

  • How many tasks from the product backlog to do in the next sprint
  • Who should work on which tasks
  • How much effort each task will take
  • What design or approach to use to complete the task
  • Which tools to use and how to apply them
  • What procedures to follow
  • What ground rules to establish for the team

Self-Organized Doesn’t Mean Self-Managed

Many people misunderstand and misuse the concept of self-organizing teams. They think it means self-managed. It doesn’t.

The project team still needs a leader/manager for things like:

  • Coaching the team on best practices
  • Facilitating meetings
  • Tracking & reporting progress
  • Building and maintaining relationships with key stakeholders
  • Managing the schedule and costs
  • Managing risks & issues
  • Establishing quality requirements
  • Coordinating with operations
  • Ensuring alignment of the project work with the expected benefits and the organizational strategy
  • Focusing on customer satisfaction

I find that too many Agile projects fail because responsibilities like those above are not being fulfilled. Often, teams don’t know enough about things like quality management and risk management to know what they’re missing.

This happens because people don’t know or don’t properly apply the values and principles of Agile. This is regrettably common in Scrum projects.

The trouble is that Scrum, without the application of other best practices in project management, is not enough. Scrum is great at what it does, but it doesn’t cover other important aspects of project management.

For details, see Why Scrum Fails: The 2 Main Reasons.

Leading the Self-Organizing Team

So, go ahead and let the team come up with the ground rules. Just make sure that they do, and that the rules are reasonable. You should facilitate a meeting to do it, and provide suggestions as needed.

Let the team choose which processes and tools to use. Just make sure that they meet the quality requirements. If you know that certain best practices will help, introduce them to the team.

Identify and manage risks. Get the team’s input, but take the lead on this.

Manage the relationships with key stakeholders.

Provide the team with the environment, tools, and support they need to be most productive.

Help them to identify impediments, and then take the responsibility to remove them. Escalate to upper management as needed.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

Self-organizing teams are not unmanaged. They still need leadership. And someone with expertise in the best practices in project management needs to take care of all the stuff that the team isn’t inclined to do.

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