5. October 2021 By Henrik Stapel
How to lead self-organised teams
Self-organisation is a guiding principle of the agile working model. As facilitators and the ones who set the agenda, leaders and managers need to establish the framework for self-organised teams. But what does self-organisation mean for leadership work in real terms? And how it is possible to ensure that the strategy is still pursued? In this post, I’ll be providing further information on the self-organisation of agile teams and their leadership from the perspective of management and executive-level staff. Along with that, I will also outline the approach a company needs to take when developing the organisational framework if it wants to become more agile.
Agility and self-organised teamwork
If a company is forced by the marketplace to make rapid changes to services or processes, it will have to be agile. That is the number one requirement for this to happen. An agile approach means being adaptive.
The agile manifesto outlined the guiding principles for the agile working method. It puts people squarely at the centre of innovative development processes (also see article ‘Human-Centred Design on the Path Towards a Customer-Centric Approach in Four Steps’ available in German) and defines how people work in teams, interact with customers, as well as how management can get involved and set the agenda in the process of establishing modern organisational structures. Agility is therefore not a new method or set of methods for (project) management. It’s a mindset. That people require autonomy, a sense of purpose and collaboration to be intrinsically motivated is part of the concept. It is important that they are able to trust each other, as everyone openly shares part of the responsibility. People with an agile mindset believe that the best results can be achieved in cross-functional, self-organised teams. This requires that a team always have a common mission or task that is understood as such by everyone involved.
Based on the specific requirements of a given situation, a self-organised team can decide which approach they need to take, be that Scrum, Kanban or design thinking, to name a few examples. This allows the team to achieve the flexibility they need to complete the task and deal with unexpected events they may encounter along the way.
In other words, agile leadership means first establishing processes that work (Scrum, for example) and then defining the changes that need to take place based on this. Teams and managers learn from iteration to iteration, add new skills and become more confident in their work.
Managing self-organised teams
When teams learn to deal with change on their own, this raises the question of what purpose do managers even serve at this point. The manager is a key figure in making the successful transition to agile methods. For without leadership, self-organisation would not be possible in the first place.
The success of agile transitions depends largely on receiving support from across all levels of management, primarily because communication within the organisation, conflict management and the nature of collaboration within the teams are largely dependent on the people who create the accompanying framework. In this case, it is necessary to establish clear lines to separate the role of the leader from the lateral leadership roles within the team.
As the number of items on the agenda steadily increases, the scope of the project grows immensely complex or technical developments become too difficult to understand, a department head may no longer be able to keep up with everything that’s going on. At this point, it helps to start by making this known to the team and clearly communicating that the manager can no longer make the best decisions in every case.
When adopting agile and self-organisation methods, a manager should understand that he or she also needs to take a targeted approach to delegating responsibility to the people who will actually be carrying out the work. The role of the manager is therefore to communicate strategic goals. He or she should not get involved in the day-to-day work of the team and instead give it the freedom and flexibility it needs inside the organisation by relieving it of administrative work. The team is given full responsibility in carrying out the project. This way, the manager not only helps the team, but also makes his or her work easier.
The role of executives and management is more clearly defined than ever before. They are there to set the agenda for the organisation and move the agile transition forward. In this role, they facilitate and initiate learning processes. New roles, short daily coordination sessions and a new form of teamwork that emerges from this have to be learned without losing focus on the ultimate goal: creating appealing solutions to solve the problems that customers are facing.
Practical tip: promote cooperation and give the team room to manoeuvre
In larger organisations more than anywhere else, self-organised teams typically cannot work autonomously and separately from other parts of the company. In cases like this, the manager has to give the team guidance within the greater context of the organisation. The circle of influence model is a simple and easy way to show the team which issues they can influence and make decisions on. The model helps in identifying which options are available in complex organisations and which measures can be used to maintain or increase the team’s room to manoeuvre. By doing so, the team can then focus on critical issues they have influence over and become more efficient over the long term.
Pairing is a proven method for promoting cooperation within self-organised teams. Under this approach, two employees are assigned to solve a task together. This way, team members can learn from each other and build a broader skill set. If responsibility for completing a complex task is no longer in the hands of one person, this increases motivation and makes it easier to find solutions as a team thanks to the complementary skill sets of its members.
As employees and teams are assigned greater responsibility and more trust is placed in them, this frees them up to work more independently and increases the impetus for them to work as a team. In the experience of managers, these aspects are closely linked and require the institutionalisation of new leadership roles in the agile environment.
Shared leadership in agile teams
A Scrum team is a great example of shared leadership in self-organised teams. By definition, the Scrum Master is a manager who serves the product owner, the development team and the organisation. This role involves, among other things, teaching them how to self-organise and manage product backlogs and providing support when carrying out Scrum events. The Scrum Master is therefore highly involved in performance management and, for example, adopts accompanying team development measures to foster performance.
The product owner who is responsible for the (financial) success of the product is the only role in the Scrum framework that is responsible for the content of the product backlog. He or she is therefore responsible for managing tasks, setting goals and providing information used in the decision-making process.
Developers are also responsible for certain aspects of task management, including task coordination and the quality of the delivered product increments. As you can see, many leadership tasks are distributed across the Scrum team and there are overlaps in some cases. This is necessary in order to create a sense of shared responsibility while also fostering communication between all members of the team.
In spite of this, managers still have an essential role to play. They continue to be responsible for carrying out tasks relating specifically to the team, including arranging employment contracts for team members, providing the team with the equipment they need to work and creating incentives or employee recognition schemes. Managers are also indispensable as collaborative partners. For example, a manager can obtain the resources that the Scrum Master needs to remove an obstacle standing in the way of the team’s work.
In summary, self-organised work and the success of an agile transition project depend to a large extent on how managers and employees embrace agile values, how the new roles are performed and how the organisation adapts during the transition to accommodate the new dynamics.
This post has outlined simple approaches to encourage leaders and managers from across all levels of the organisation to inject greater agility into their companies and their personal leadership styles.