Rediscovering Self-organisation

There is a lot of talk about ‘self-organised teams’ within this space we have come to know as ‘Agile’. Although this concept of self-organisation might seem simple on the surface, like many things, it is often misunderstood, marginalised, reduced, paid cursory consideration, gains limited understanding, and then is SAFely relegated to the bottom centre of some heavy framework. In this post, I am going to delve beneath the surface of this topic, remove the dust, and try and reinstate its importance as a cornerstone of Scrum and the entire ‘Agile’ philosophy.

Self-Organisation Defined

Let’s start by defining ‘self-organisation’. I’m going straight to Wikipedia – it’s good enough.

‘Self-organisation, also called (in the social sciences) spontaneous order, is a process where some form of overall order arises from local interactions between parts of an initially disordered system. The process can be spontaneous when sufficient energy is available, not needing control by any external agent. It is often triggered by seemingly random fluctuations, amplified by positive feedback. The resulting organisation is wholly decentralised, distributed over all the components of the system. As such, the organisation is typically robust and able to survive or self-repair substantial perturbation. Chaos theory discusses self-organisation in terms of islands of predictability in a sea of chaotic unpredictability.’

So, it’s clear here that the concept of self-organisation is not just a management idea, it is something much more fundamental – it’s an essential quality, organic; it’s how bees make honey, how flocks of birds avoid becoming prey, it allows flawless diamonds to emerge, and entire galaxies to form out of darkness. The concept of self-organisation applied to agile teams draws from complexity science and chaos theory and is supported by decades of empirical data.

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A Cornerstone of Scrum

We know through observing the natural world, that systems within which control is wholly decentralised are more resilient and adaptive to change. Order and complex structures are seen to emerge from chaos.

Scrum provides a set of (light) enabling constraints to help teams navigate chaos and complexity. Teams are guided by clear goals that align with broader business strategy to help bring focus and order whilst respecting the need to embrace change and the unknown. Healthy organisations have built-in instability across the entire organisation – management has let go of the idea of centralised control so that the entire organisation is self-organising.

Referring back to the seminal text that inspired Scrum and the entire ‘Agile’ movement, The New New Product Development Game, we can without a doubt confirm this concept as being one of the fundamental building blocks of a modern product organisation.

“This holistic approach has six characteristics: built-in instability, self-organizing project teams, overlapping development phases, “multi-learning,” subtle control, and organizational transfer of learning. The six pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, forming a fast flexible process for new product development. Just as important, the new approach can act as a change agent: it is a vehicle for introducing creative, market-driven ideas and processes into an old, rigid organization.”

Promoting Self-organisation

Many misconceptions, in my opinion, arise from a lack of understanding, and this topic is no different. It is why we have seen a rise in the popularity of heavy frameworks such as SAFe which are called ‘Agile’ but pay lip-service to the founding principles of built-in instability and self-organising teams.

Here we see that the people doing the work of developing a product are ‘self-organised’ within the tight boundaries of control and multiple layers of management hierarchy.

SAFe

Many people argue that these heavy frameworks have a place, and maybe they do, I don’t wish to dispute that, but we should know that these frameworks do little to promote the basic principles the ‘Agile’ movement was based upon. We should recognise that they are not very agile and understand that truly adaptive organisations have worked hard to shed these layers of control, so that the entire organisation is self-organised, with instability built-in, complexity honoured, and change expected and welcomed. Now, I’m not saying that we should remove all constraints, and expect people to come together in harmonious flow, but we should focus on making our frameworks as light as possible, and work with dedication and focus to form a network of small ‘lightly coupled, tightly aligned’, autonomous teams – letting basic principles act as our constraints. This is the focus of mature agile organisations and the true path to business agility.

Here are the things that I promote in my work as a Scrum Master to support self-organisation and agility.

Strategy and Alignment

In a commercial setting, self-organising teams must be supported by a set of enabling constraints, guided by sound principles, and have purpose through clearly defined strategic vision and goals that align with the overarching strategy of the broader organisation.

While Scrum encourages team behaviours that support self-organisation by its inherent nature, I have often leaned on tools and ideas taken from Lean strategy deployment methodologies such as Hosin Kanri, OKR, OGSM, etc to support Scrum in terms of self-organisation. While each of these approaches has their strengths, weaknesses, and appropriate context, all of them centre around the basic idea that teams should be motivated by having a sense of purpose whilst working towards a clearly stated vision or goal(s). With this approach, teams have goals to reach and self-organise to work in a way that will allow those goals to be accomplished. Simplicity is key here.

This obligatorily Steve Jobs quote hits the nail on the head for me.

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
-Steve Jobs

Balancing Autonomy with Accountability

We have explored how Scrum provides a set of enabling constraints, and how Lean strategy deployment tools can help create alignment and a sense of common purpose. The feeling of being micro-manged and constrained by an overzealous manager is well known to most of us. We feel under-threat, uninspired, and disengaged. Our best work emerges when we are free to work with autonomy – in fact, I see this as a basic human right. That said, we need to balance autonomy with accountability to ensure positive results.

Kent Beck said; “Autonomy without accountability is just vacation.” For me, this quote captures the idea that although free-thinking and autonomy often leads to moments of innovation, this freedom must be balanced with accountability and attention to results – or chaos, confusion, and organisational inefficacy might (continue to) ensue.

Nurture

While self-organisation in theory, and often is, spontaneous, some gently applied constraints, support, education, coaching, and guidance will help a team along their journey to greater business agility.

This is where an experienced Scrum Master can benefit your organisation. A good Scrum Master will keep you honest, reflect the truth when things go askew, he will support, and mentor. He will ‘lovingly preparing the organisational soil, letting change emerge, nurturing it, guiding the growth patiently, gently and naturally, and removing weeds without introducing toxins.’ He will skillfully use facilitation techniques that respect and encourage emergent leadership but ensure that there is equal voice and weight within the team to promote a sense of balanced self-organisation. He will rely on his deep knowledge, experience, and intuition to guide you on your journey.

Conclusion

Here we have unearthed a core principle, dusted it down, and reinstated it’s important in a world of buzzwords, jargon, and commoditised methodologies and frameworks. We have gone back to the roots of this concept and have found that it is already all around us. We have learned that our focus should be on removing layers of bureaucracy to arrive at a state of simplicity and flow – guided by basic principles.

Reference: 

Growing up with Agile – – Minimum Viable Bureaucracy at Spotify. Peter Antman, Crisp Blog. Web.

How Spotify Balances Employee Autonomy and Accountability. Michael Mankins & Eric Garton. HBR. 2017. Web.

The Scrum Master Journey. Tobias Mayer. 2019. Web.

The New New Product Development Game. Hirotaka Takeuchi & Ikujiro Nonaka. HBR. 1986. Web 2018.

What is SAFe. Scaled Agile. 2020. Web.

Go to the profile of Paul Marshall

‘ I challenge and support individuals and teams – helping them find fulfilment and inspiration through better ways of working.’

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