Self-organisation – Does the fish rot from the head?

The Agile Manifesto is one of our key foundations to build an adaptive management system into organisations. It focuses on learning, self-organisation, communication and collaboration. Even if Software developers created it initially, any organisational function can apply the mindset and thinking patterns.

Besides the values, the Agile Manifesto promotes 12 principles. The following of those might be the most important. It is the guideline on promoting the team’s self-organisation:

“Build projects around motivated individuals.
Give them the environment and support they need,
and trust them to get the job done.”

In our conversations with decision makers we realised this principle to be the most misunderstood. One of my friends referred to the principle as following: “Give them the tools they need to get the job done and then leave them alone”. This interpretation might be dangerous. Even if they say, that they do not actively engage, it may have fatal results.

Such an interpretation will lead to an expectation from Management side, which the team can not achieve. When decision makers take part in a team activity such as Sprint Review, they will see results which are based on wrong assumptions. Immediately they will try to correct and actively engage. They will tell people how they should do it different. As the team already carried out the activity, the nature of the comment might become already emotional. In the end of this process members might not be motivated anymore or feel anxious to continue with their work. In the end team members might lose the connection to what they want to achieve.

The power of process thinking

Most organisations think, that following certain processes is the easiest and best way of accomplishing tasks. Therefore people gain recognition mostly on how much they follow the ruleset of the process. Every process-step has a result or at least the working material is in a certain defined status. For example in a Waterfall process we expect a document of Software Requirements after the Analysis phase .

Treating the process to a self-organised team in a similar way, might lead to a result in which individuals would not really understand the purpose. With all the processes and metrics, which should make performance and improvement more actionable, we forget, that every team is a construct of human interactions. We cannot fit individual people’s behaviour and unforeseeable team dynamics into a process, which we defined long time ahead.

Self-organisation is a journey

Therefore most important part on the way to an empowered team is to understand that we cannot achieve perfection. The team needs to understand, that instead of blurrily telling them to self-organise, they rather should create a Definition of awesome. This definition would describe, what a pure self-organised team means to them. Teams, then, still rely on any leader’s advice as long as they need it or as long as you agreed with them.

Clear Working Agreements (such as a Delegation board from Management 3.0) between Management and team helps both of them to follow up in times of uncertainty. And in the beginning there is clearly more uncertainty.

Does the fish rot from the head?!

Managers claim, they do not have always the time to fathom the small individual interactions between individual team members. With an empowered team, which improves their self-organisation every day towards their defined Definition of Awesome the Manager is able to trust the team and consequently delegate more. This leads to sustainably more time for them.

Therefore I always recommend Managers, who want to become better leaders, to embrace and establish their tools and activities around the following 4 values:

  • Empathy: Walk into the shoes of the other person to understand their reasoning and decision making.
  • Learning: Always consider the other person as a counter-part and understand the diversity makes the the team strong.
  • Transparency: In your daily work, share what you are doing every day and how other people can help you. Embrace the team to change their work with each other.
  • Integrity: Treat your team members with the same respect as you treat your clients. Are you cancelling client meetings last minute? Are you usually late for those meetings?

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