The Role of Leaders on a Self-Organizing Team

This post is from by Mike Cohn.

Self-organization is a fundamental concept in agile project management. The Agile Manifesto includes the principle, “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.” Yet a common misconception about agile project management approaches is that because of this reliance on self-organizing teams, there is little or no role for leaders of agile teams. Nothing could be further from the truth. In The Biology of Business, Philip Anderson refutes this mistaken assumption:

Self-organization does not mean that workers instead of managers engineer an organization design. It does not mean letting people do whatever they want to do. It means that management commits to guiding the evolution of behaviors that emerge from the interaction of independent agents instead of specifying in advance what effective behavior is.

Self-organizing teams are not free from management control. Management chooses for them what product to build or often chooses who will work on their project, but they are nonetheless self-organizing. Neither are they free from influence. Early references to Scrum were clear about this. In“The New New Product Development Game” from 1986, Takeuchi and Nonaka write that “subtle control is also consistent with the self-organizing character of project teams.” An agile or Scrum team’s job is to self-organize around the challenges, and within the boundaries and constraints, put in place by management. Management’s job is to come up with appropriate challenges and remove impediments to self-organization. That being said, the fewer constraints or controls put on a team, the better. If leaders overly constrain how an agile team solves the challenge given to it, self-organization will not occur. The team will shut down; because it has already been told so much about the challenge and how to solve it, it will wait to hear the rest.

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