What is self-organization and how to get some of it

Scrum requires that teams self-organize to accomplish goals. But what is self-organization and how do we achieve it? Self-organization occurs in biological, robotic, and cognitive systems. It is a process where order emerges from chaos through the interaction of its parts without the use of a control agent, such as how a flock of birds can fly and move together to accomplish complex formations. Achieving self-organization, however, requires creating the right environment for it to flourish. It is the responsibility of managers and organizational leaders to support the qualities that enable self-organization. Some of these qualities include:

Autonomy – Self-organization requires that management and those in a position of authority acknowledge the need for team and individual autonomy. For autonomy to thrive, it requires that those in power protect those with diminished autonomy. An autonomous person is capable of negotiating goals and is free to act to accomplish them. To respect self-organization also means to consider an autonomous persons' ideas and guidance without hindering their actions except for when they are clearly harmful to others or to the goal.

Transparency - Withholding information necessary to make reasonable autonomous decisions to accomplish a goal when there is no convincing reason to do so inhibits self-organization and its benefits. Managers must try to communicate as much information as is reasonably possible to team members.

Empirical Experimentation - Not every team member, however, is capable of self-organizing around all their responsibilities. The capacity for self-organization matures as team members gain experience. It is the job of management to find a balance between self-organization and direction so that less experienced individuals become more autonomous. This balance requires the leadership to foster an environment that encourages individuals to experiment, fail, learn, and adapt.

Decentralization – When organizations allow localized decision making, the resulting structure is a distributed system that can quickly react and adapt. This removes delays caused by hierarchical funnels and creates a robust system that is capable of self-repairing.

Experimentation – Self-organization is amplified by feedback. Create a culture of experimentation where team members are free to try different alternatives and arrive at the optimum outcome by process of elimination. This implies also celebrating short-term failures that create an opportunity to quickly adapt.

It is critical for Scrum teams to self-organize in order to achieve true Agility. As a leader, you are in a position to foster self-organization by promoting these qualities. Consider starting with these five tips and don’t forget to inspect and adapt.


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