Steve Fenton

What are self-organising teams?

Self-Organising PawnIf you have a background in a “traditional” software development methodology, such as Waterfall, you probably won’t have come across the concept of self-organising teams. I know development managers and project managers who baulk at the very phrase, but actually it makes a lot of sense when you think of it in different terms.

The self-organising team in software development is borrowed from a principle in lean car manufacturing. Rather than have 5 wheel guys putting on wheels under the supervision of a clipboard-wielding whip-cracker, whose job is to tell the 5 wheel guys how they could do their job faster and better – you just make sure your wheel guys are experts and tell them to work out the best process for putting on wheels. This all stems from the concept that if you employ experts to do a job, they actually want to do the right thing and as they have amazing knowledge in their subject area, they will come up with the best method for delivering quality in good time. The person holding the clipboard can throw it away, stop managing the low level details and instead allow their gaze to take in the “bigger picture”.

The problem with this example is that it relies on you actually caring about cars to really engage with the example. To me, the thought of putting wheels on a car isn’t terribly interesting and trying to imagine what optimisations might improve quality or speed just doesn’t get me excited at all.

That’s why I have decided to use chess to provide a better example. Better because chess is a game, not a car and better because it gives us an opportunity to view the subject in an entirely different way.

So picture this. You are not a chess player, you are the manager of a team of wooden employees with a wide and varied skill set. In traditional management, you decide where every piece moves and hold in your head the overall plan for your next 16 moves. Your plan has a fixed goal and you know exactly how you are going to manage each piece in order to get it exactly where you think it needs to be to get your win. The problem is, all the time you are moving your pieces, your opponent is moving theirs and so your plan keeps on getting messed up and you need to constantly re-work it to try and get to your eventual goal.

That’s command and control.

Now let’s change the rules. Instead of worrying about every single move, you tell the pawns that they are now a self-organising team and that their goal is to protect the king. You no longer have pawns on the chess board, you have eight dedicated Musketeers ready to do whatever it takes to keep the king safe (and they very often extend this protection to the queen also!)

When you were moving the pawns yourself, they were rubbish. They could move two spaces on their first move, and then just one space each move – always plodding gradually forward. Now that they are self-organised, they aren’t constrained by the rules you were imposing on your own thinking and now they move as many spaces as they need to and in whatever direction in order to get the job done. They are using their initiative and expert knowledge of personal protection to prevent any attack on the king. It is like you have 8 additional queens on the board.

On top of this, you are now able to stop wasting time pushing a pawn forward each turn and can spend your time on more valuable decisions. You can now think about what needs to be done, rather than how it gets done.

If you turn your attention to the other pieces, you may decide to create a cross-functional team of rooks and knights whose job is to force your opponent’s king to surrender and before you know it, the pawns have found a massive problem out, dispatched it before it has managed to do too much damage and presented a carte-blanche signed by the bishop.

Allowing a team to be self-organising doesn’t mean you lose control. It means that you shift that control to what is actually important, rather than getting yourself drowned in the detail. At the same time, it acknowledges the skills of the team and rewards them by allowing them to choose the best path to the goals that have been set. You haven’t let go of the team, you have just stopped holding them back.

There is just time for a final disclaimer. As per the principles of software craftsmanship, you need to have skilled developers to make a self-organising team. The whole concept centres around allowing the people with the most appropriate skills make the decisions, so the people who are experts in wheels decide how best to put them on. If you don’t think your wheel-fitters are experts in what they do, you have other problems and should come back and read this when you have great people doing that job.

On the whole though, the more common scenario is that you do have experts, but you are fearful of what would happen if you stopped controlling every aspect of what they do. If this is the case, seriously consider allowing your pawns to self-organise and become the Monsieur de Treville to a team of dedicated Musketeers.

Written by Steve Fenton on