Agile Leadership Myth #2: Self-Organizing Teams don’t need any help.

How did we arrive at this place where so many people believe that self-organizing teams do not need help? The fact is, self-organizing teams DO need help.

Self-organizing teams DO need help!

What teams can experience: Teams might not know exactly what kind of help they need or even how to describe it. This can be especially true if they had a manager-led team and were told what to do and when to do it. I hear teams say, “we don’t need managers”, but they often mean that they don’t need managers telling them what to do.

What managers can experience: Managers are often put in a position of shifting from being an expert and telling teams what to do to some new approach that is not clear to them. They may not know exactly how to help a self-organizing team. I call this clumsy management. It is not that they are doing it on purpose, they just happen to be bumping into things when trying to help. Managers are sometimes told to “stay out of the team’s way”, so they end up disengaged and not sure how to reengage. The fact that a manager may not be sure how to help a self-organizing team does not mean that help is not needed.

Reality is, teams do need help, but they need the right kind of help and they need leaders, managers, agile coaches, and help from within the team to continuously improve to get to and maintain high-performance. One of the initial challenges around this topic is that we are not all on the same page with the words and phrases we use. We need to have a common understanding of words like self-organizing team and manager before we try to unravel some of the confusion on teams needing help.

What Does Self-Organizing mean?

A self-organizing team is a team that “self-organizes” to complete the work they are committed to getting done, monitors their own performance, and determines how to structure the work to complete it. A self-organizing team is the opposite of a “manager-led” team – where the manager figures who will do the work, how it is done, and monitors the performance.

That might seem simple, but here is where it gets confusing. The term “self-organizing” is often confused with “self-managing.” One source of this is “Four Levels of Team Self-Management” (from the American Psychological Association (1986)) and included in J. Richard Hackman’s book Leading Teams (2002). In the chart and book, self-managing is described as what we think of as self-organizing. The basic idea is simple, a team “self-manages the work” vs. “self-organizes to deliver the work.” You can see how they can mean the same thing if they are used in a sentence, instead of simply two words and a hyphen.

Tricia Broderick and I, who co-teach a leadership class together, see a self-managing team as handling typical “management’ tasks (in additional to doing what a self-organizing team does). These would include hiring, firing, performance issues, performance evaluations, etc. The book and chart refer to this as a “self-designing team” – they ‘design the team’.  In our experience, because the term ‘management’ often links to ‘managers’, it is challenging to use the term self-managing, without people assuming they (the team) are now the managers. Additionally, most agile and Scrum materials (not all), use the term self-organizing.

Most organizations, teams, and team members are not prepared to handle the self-management (e.g. team design) in additional to the self-organization of the work and performance (at least initially). If you want to use different definitions, just be sure everyone agrees on what each term means and realize that when you use the term “self-managing” it will almost always carry additional implications.

Manager vs. Leader

The terms manager and leader are often pitted against each other. Managers are often disregarded as a relic of the past and seen as not needed. While there are instances where managers are not needed, most organizations are not setup (at this point), to transition all management to teams. But, here is where we can miss the point. Management is not, by its existence, bad (or evil). You certainly may have experienced a ‘bad manager’, but if you step back and look at what was ‘bad’, you might realize that the person was good, and they were just doing the best they could at the time. Perhaps they were following policies or the cultural norm. That does not excuse it, but if they have the opportunity to change or could see options to improve – would they?

While a leader may or may not be a manager, we do generally have an expectation that managers are leaders. Yet, we don’t train managers to be leaders. We promote them and say, “good luck!”  Then we are surprised when they struggle. It is a sad state of affairs.

What do self-organizing teams need?

Self-organizing teams need an environment and the space to succeed. They need to continue to learn new ways to improve their team relationship, to create and maintain Antifragile Relationships.  Relationships that improve and benefit from conflict (healthy). From a manager they need someone who will engage with them to help them be the best they can be, or really to help them exceed everyone’s expectations. That seems a bit lofty I suppose, but that is the goal. Managers need to help teams reach new heights, but not by telling them what to do, but tapping into the vast knowledge that the creative and intelligent people they work with have – hence, managers need to be leaders as well.

Where can you start? 

Start by making sure people understand what the terms mean. Is everyone on the same page? If they are not, use this as a discussion to find out what they do mean to people. What are the differences as well as similarities?

Consider what new concepts you can introduce to a team that will help them become more antifragile. There are a lot of concepts out there, and sometimes they introduced as “the way” to lead or “the way” to be a team member. Most often, the approach, tool, idea, or tactic is simply one option you can use. But difference options help people see difference angles through difference lens. Don’t look to pick one way, instead look at various concepts that you can introduce over time, based on what you see and hear as needs.

Perhaps the simplest place to start, as a manager becoming a leader is this – ask yourself these questions every time you are considering solving a problem for the team:

Ask yourself the hard questions!

  1. “Do they really need me to solve this or do I need me to solve this?” – Sounds a bit silly, but who are you doing this for? If you say the team never steps up. . . is that because of them or you a manager? You might need to change to help them change.
  2. “If I solve this, will it help the team grow?” – What we see again and again, is that when the manager owns the issue, they own the issues! Teams will not be accountable or have responsibility if you end up being the problem solver.
  3. “What does the team need from me to start to solve issues like these on their own?” – Remember to NOT simply tell a team “you are empowered”, that is another myth and it does not work.

Interested in increasing your leadership abilities?  Checkout Agile Leadership – Leading Amazing Teams for Breakthrough Results.

Subscribe to receive emails with my new posts and Agile Safari cartoons or follow me on Social Media.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Really a worth read! True that self-organizing team has the power to take crucial decision when needed. When team members start taking responsibility and accountability as an entity instead of as individuals, it will make one step clear and closer to being part of a great team.

  2. This article certainly rings true! Management and leadership should go hand in hand in my book however, seldom do and as mentioned individuals are often thrown into a role without the appropriate skills. You have provided some valuable guidance and I would only add, if you need support as a team member or manager, ask for it!

Jake Calabrese

Jake Calabrese is a coach, trainer, and coach-consultant working to help organizations meet the promise of agile by going beyond agile practices to address culture challenges and help teams and leaders reach and maintain high performance. He has unique expertise as an Organization & Relationship Systems Certified Coach (ORSCC), a Certified Scrum Trainer (CST), Certified Enterprise Coach (CEC), and Professional Certified Coach (PCC), and as a trainer and coach for Agile Companies (helping non-software organizations use agile). Jake created the AgileSafari cartoon series to introduce humor into the more challenging issues we have to tackle. Jake uses ideas from various areas of thinking such as: Lean, professional coaching, neuroscience, psychology, facilitation, brain-based training, improvisation, agile, kanban, and scrum. Jake regularly speaks at local and national conferences including Mile High Agile, Scrum Gathering, and Agile Alliance Agile20xx conferences.

Connect Twitter LinkedIn Subscribe to RSS Feed Blog posts by this author