Self-Organizing Teams in Agile: What Makes Them Successful?

Nikolay Tsonev

Nikolay Tsonev

Product Marketing | PMI Agile | SAFe Agilist certified

Table of Contents:

In the dynamic world of project management, the agility and responsiveness of a team are often the cornerstones of success. A self-organizing team epitomizes this approach, as it consists of skilled professionals who steer their own course in managing and executing work. This autonomous structure isn't a new-age invention; it has roots that trace back to the post-World War II era, a time when Japan's economy was undergoing a significant transformation that demanded efficient production strategies. The rise of the Agile movement in recent years has brought the concept of self-organizing teams to the forefront of modern project management.

Join us as we delve into the importance of self-organizing teams and explore how they can be a game-changer in today's fast-paced business environment.

What Is a Self-Organizing Team?

A self-organizing team is a collective of professionals who are endowed with the autonomy to make decisions on how to manage and execute their work, aligning closely with the technical details and customer requirements. This approach, which has its roots in the Toyota Production System (TPS), revolutionized manufacturing by focusing on waste elimination and adopting a "pull" system over a "push" system. The TPS highlighted the importance of harnessing individual expertise and innovation while ensuring that team members work towards common objectives. As highlighted in his book TPS Beyond Large-Scale Production, Taiichi Ohno defines: "A championship team combines good teamwork with individual skill."

The essence of self-organizing teams lies in the empowerment of those directly engaged with the work. This empowers them to apply their deep understanding of the work at hand to drive operations. This empowerment leads to enhanced morale and efficiency within the team, fostering an environment where superior customer value is the natural outcome.

What Is the Importance of Self-Organizing Teams in Agile?

Self-organization is an essential trait of Agile teams because they contribute to fast and frequent value delivery to the market. This happens because, in an Agile environment, team members are left to freely exert their expertise on a given topic without being micromanaged. In addition, respecting individual skills increases team members' motivation, improves their efficiency, and contributes to the faster and more frequent release of working solutions to end customers.

self-organizing teams

What Are the Key Components of Self-Organizing Teams?

Self-organizing teams thrive on a foundation of key components that collectively foster autonomy, efficiency, and innovation; here are the six main pillars that underpin their success:

Expertise: For a self-organizing team to operate effectively, members must possess expertise not only in their respective fields but also in project management. Moreover, they bear significant responsibility and must effectively manage their time while thoroughly comprehending the work process. Additionally, cross-functionality is crucial as it enables team members to assist one another and address various aspects when needed.

Focus on Collaboration and Teamwork: Self-organizing teams prioritize collaboration, emphasizing teamwork over individual achievement. They cultivate an open, no-blame atmosphere and continually strive for collective success. In addition to competence, team members must exhibit empathy, share knowledge freely, and unite their efforts to achieve common goals.

Motivation (including Self-Accountability): Another important characteristic of self-organizing teams is motivation. Instead of waiting on assignments from higher-level management, the members of such teams start their work and are even encouraged to come up with ideas on what to do when there's nothing planned yet. This requires a high level of motivation, self-accountability, and dedication to a shared vision.

Trust and Respect: The members of a self-organizing team respect and actively listen to each other, as final decisions are made based on historical data rather than opinions. Furthermore, due to the cross-functionality concept, self-organizing teams trust that everybody can get the planned work done successfully. When somebody is stuck or lacks specific knowledge, they're encouraged to ask for help or even have some slack time to dedicate to learning.

Continuous ImprovementContinuous improvement is paramount for self-organizing teams, enhancing their performance and value delivery to customers. Agile managers encourage members to use downtime for learning, diverging from traditional practices focused solely on task completion. This commitment fosters team autonomy and confidence, driving ongoing competence growth within the team.

Sense of Ownership and Commitment: Team members must demonstrate accountability for their tasks and be willing to communicate any obstacles hindering progress so that they can be resolved promptly. Additionally, self-organization hinges on a shared purpose, emphasizing the role of Agile project managers in fostering and communicating this collective goal.

How Do Self-Organizing Teams Work in Practice?

Self-organizing teams work by engaging in collaborative sessions (meetings) to plan their own tasks. Instead of waiting for a manager to distribute a set of work assignments, self-organizing teams usually visualize their work in backlogs and sit together to determine how to organize what needs to be done best.

In self-organizing teams, members convene during routine planning sessions to align on work priorities and fill their work queue. Whether deploying work in scheduled increments or flowing it continuously into the market, these sessions are crucial for consensus on individual responsibilities. Empowered to tackle tasks using their best judgment, team members operate with minimal oversight, fostering a sense of value and expertise. This autonomy not only curtails micromanagement but also has the potential to substantially boost productivity.

It's important to mention that project managers do not disappear from self-organizing teams. However, their role shifts. They focus on managing the work instead of the workers, prioritizing team projects, collecting customer feedback, communicating the strategic goals and vision, and being the connective tissue between the team(s) and top-level management.

agile manifesto values

What Emerges from a Self-Organizing Team?

The 11th Agile principle for project management states that "the best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams". This is a direct reference to the idea that management in organizations should actively involve team members in planning efforts and give them autonomy to make local decisions about work execution approaches. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense because it's usually the professionals on a team who produce direct customer value with their technical expertise on a given topic. So, trusting in their skills makes them feel valued, which can result in better product/service quality.

How to Create Self-Organizing Teams?

Renowned author and coaching expert Ro Gorell, known for guiding leaders through transformative change in agile settings, emphasizes that self-organizing teams don't spontaneously emerge. As outlined in "Coaching Self-Organising Teams," there is a multitude of practical considerations to address, ranging from selecting the right tools and techniques to defining roles to the more nuanced challenge of fostering a safe and trusting environment.

Having said that, the creation of self-organizing teams hinges on three fundamental elements that are essential to their efficiency and triumph:

1. Invest in Training

Provide your team with the necessary skills and knowledge. Foster self-growth and proficiency in Agile project management, as well as the soft skills needed for a shift from solo performance to team synergy.

2. Embrace Coaching

Just as a garden needs a gardener, a self-organizing team benefits from the guidance of Agile coaches. These experts provide direction in planning and structuring work and help teams develop their collaborative skills. Over time, teams will grow to sustain themselves, reducing their reliance on external coaching.

3. Provide Mentoring

Ongoing mentorship is essential to ensure the garden flourishes. Whether it's an Agile coach or a seasoned team member with leadership qualities, a mentor helps navigate challenges and maintain the delicate balance between autonomy and order.

Traditional vs. Agile Teams

Comparing the core characteristics of traditional teams and those of Agile self-organizing teams highlights the differences in structure, management, and overall approach to work.

Aspect Traditional Team Agile Self-Organizing Team
Leadership Top-down management Shared leadership and decision-making
Project Management Top-down project management with tight control over planning and execution Collaborative planning with team members making execution decisions
Team Autonomy Limited autonomy due to micromanagement High autonomy to encourage ownership
Team Structure Functional silos with distinct roles Cross-functional teams with overlapping skills
Work Delivery Execution strictly according to the plan Adaptive execution with the flexibility to change course based on feedback
Customer Value Focus on meeting pre-defined expectations Continuous delivery of value with work closely aligned to actual customer needs and feedback


What Are the Challenges Faced by the Self-Organizing Teams?

Some of the main challenges faced by self-organizing teams are listed below.

  • Resistance: When turning from a traditional team structure to self-organization, you might face opposition from project managers or some senior team members.
  • Lack of Self-Management Skills: Team members might lack self-management skills, making the transition to self-organization difficult.
  • Team Conflicts: Due to the team's autonomy, there is a good chance that more team members will have separate opinions, leading to disputes.
  • Absence of Individual Accountability: Some people might be less accountable than others to do their work, which can cause an imbalance in the team.

Self-Organization: A Continuous Learning Process

Self-organization is a dynamic learning journey that intertwines the Lean principles of continuous improvement and respect for people with Agile project management methods. This approach acknowledges the intrinsic value and expertise of each team member, fostering an environment where individuals are empowered to take the initiative and contribute to the collective workflow management.

By embracing the Lean concept, self-organizing teams continuously seek ways to streamline processes and enhance efficiency, all while maintaining a deep respect for the human element at the core of their operations. Agile principles further enrich this landscape by promoting adaptability and customer-centric development, ensuring that teams remain responsive and innovative. What emerges from self-organizing teams as a result - a fertile ground for growth, where learning is an ongoing process and improvement is a shared responsibility, ultimately leading to more effective and resilient project management.

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Project Management

Nikolay Tsonev

Nikolay Tsonev

Product Marketing | PMI Agile | SAFe Agilist certified

Nick is passionate about product marketing and business development and is a subject matter expert at Businessmap. With expertise in OKRs, strategy execution, Agile, and Kanban, he continues to drive his interest in continuous improvement. Nick is a PMI Agile and SAFe Agilist certified practitioner.