Self-organising teams – reality, myth, or utopia?

Self-organisation is the dream of every manager who implements agile methodologies. But does agile help to build such teams?

My experience in managing tech teams and recent studies on the topic show that it does. But only as long as team leaders meet specific conditions.

In this article, I’m going to take a closer look at these conditions, explain their value to self-organisations, and share some tips to help you start building self-organised teams at your organisation.

Agile and self-organisation

I use agile methodologies every day at my workplace. As the Chief Operating Officer at a software development and data science agency working with clients from London, New York, and Amsterdam, I’m directly involved in product process coordination, managing project portfolio, and service delivery.

But I’m also responsible for diagnosing systematic process problems in our tech teams. And one of the issues I try to solve every day centres on self-organisation.

The goal of agile implementations is creating teams that are:

  • independent,
  • high-performing,
  • able to deliver value in short iterations,
  • autonomous,
  • and – most importantly – self-organised!

So here’s my question: is self-organisation in agile teams a myth, reality, or utopia?

Let’s start by defining self-organisation

What is self-organisation all about?

I think nobody would like to work in a place where they’re limited by hierarchical structures or managers who are in love with micromanagement.

We all have our distinct ambitions and skill sets we want to explore. That’s why we look for autonomy. Self-organisation enables that autonomy.

But is self-organisation just another buzzword? No, it’s actually natural. We can observe the principles of self-organisation at work in natural teams like ant colonies, bee hives, or the incredibly synchronised flocks of ducks.

Self-organisation might be counterintuitive when compared to the classic models of team organisation. After all, a such a team has no hierarchy.

Here’s how the Scrum Guide defines self-organisation:

“Self-organizing teams choose how best to accomplish their work, rather than being directed by others outside the team.”

“Development Teams are structured and empowered by the organization to organize and manage their own work.”

Ok, so now we know what self-organisation is. We all want to achieve it and build a workplace that empowers every single team member with autonomy. And self-organisation is the recipe for that.

Here’s the problem: teams often fail to self-organise

I’ve always wondered why achieving self-organisation is so tricky. We need to start by identifying the root causes of this issue.

  1. Specific personal attributes – we all make recruitment mistakes. Sometimes team managers fail to identify problems quickly enough. In tech teams, narrow specialization makes team members unwilling to work in other areas which makes self-organisation even more challenging.
  2. The organisational culture – perhaps nobody really believes in agile principles at your workplace? Managers often try to change the behavior of team members without motivating them first. If your organisation doesn’t support learning, sharing knowledge, and – most importantly – making mistakes, it also won’t support self-organisation.
  3. How teams and the organisation understand agile and scrum, whether they received appropriate training.
  4. Team members avoid sharing problems or difficulties with the team – lack of ownership, transparency or trust within a team, more or less explicit punishment for identifying problems.
  5. Lack of education about self-organisation and its advantages.
  6. Lack of a proper feedback loop within the team – I’ve seen how quickly teams can grow just by getting feedback, implementing it, and learning from it, in line with the lean philosophy). The problem occurs when people don’t receive feedback on a regular basis.
  7. Lack of business orientation – it’s easy to forget that we’re supposed to deliver business value continuously.
  8. Improper Task Relevant Maturity – when complex projects are assigned to junior teams without strong leadership or regular feedback loops, they can quickly get off track.
  9. Bad habits, assumptions, and experiences acquired in previous workplaces – some team members need to be instructed and assigned tasks. They’re very efficient when managed in this way, and they don’t mind it. They simply might have habits they’ve developed at their previous workplace.
  10. The incongruence of the team and organisation goals, lack of the bigger picture view – objectives on both individual or corporate level must be coherent with the company’s strategy, and very often they aren’t.

There’s another context: The agency dilemma

Have you ever thought about why we need to pay workers their salaries?

It’s so obvious that we never think about it – or the origin of the employer-employee relationship.

I want to stop here for a moment and explain why organisations need managers in the first place. To do that, I’ll use the agency dilemma (principal-agent theory), one of the fundamental organisational behaviour/corporate governance theories.

It says this: Employers and employees have different goals.

The classic transactional theory assumes that to realise goals, contract parties come together to maximise revenues and boost operational efficiency. That makes sense – working together on a problem like increasing sales is far more efficient than working alone.

Within that type of contract, there exist different roles: owner, manager, client (or other stakeholders). This is how we get to the principal and agent relation.

The asymmetry of information results in one of these parties working under more uncertain circumstances.

The two parties may enter into conflict because they aim to maximise their own benefits of the contract. The principal is the company owner who took the risk of running a business. The same isn’t true for the agent.

What is interesting here is that these parties don’t have access to identical information. As organizations grow, controlling agents becomes more difficult. The reasons range from the increasing role of specialization to the complexity of processes and many others.

That asymmetry of information makes effective control impossible and may lead to opportunistic behaviors.

Paradoxically, in this situation, both parties are moving away from maximising their usefulness – even though they were striving for it in the first place.

What determines the choice of a management strategy is the agency costs: the sum of all the costs that the principal must bear for monitoring the agent’s activities.

That’s why it pays to build an environment (a motivational system or entire organisational culture) that improves information exchange and reduces the costs that originate in the limited access to that information.

In its ideal state, self-organisation removes the transaction costs resulting from the need to manage people, motivate them, control them, and set directions.

Self-organisation as a process

Self-organisation is not a myth. I’ve seen it work for many teams – they managed themselves better than the Navy Seals.

However, the agency theory also affects well-synchronised teams. Agency conflicts occur in all enterprises.

That’s why self-organisation doesn’t occur on its own. We all have to work hard to achieve it and minimise the agency costs.

Self-organisation is somewhere between reality and utopia – I’d call it utopian reality. Why utopian? Because the ideal conditions almost never occur.

Even if we achieve the state of self-organisation, it’s easy to lose it. Striving for self-organisation never really ends. It’s not a project, but a process. We need to keep on improving self-organisation even after we achieve it and create an environment the elevates the work of self-organised teams.

Tips for managers striving for self-organisation

Here’s my advice to managers looking to build agile self-organised teams.

Understand that self-organisation never ends and will never be complete.

Self-organisation is a process, not a specific point in a timeline. You need to pursue it relentlessly – even if you never reach the ‘ideal’ state.

The team will continually evolve as it tries to figure out how to self-organise. Retrospectives are the best tool for boosting the learning curve.

Once you set up a new team, it needs to start evolving and aligning immediately. Here’s how to do that:

  • Introduce a culture of empathy, understanding, and honesty. Don’t punish anyone for making mistakes.
  • People may criticise feedbacking, but it brings many advantages. Pay attention to delivering feedback regularly; don’t wait for formal meetings like performance appraisal. Set one-on-one meetings with your team members and make them mission-oriented. Teach your team how to give and receive feedback; they need to feel empowered to let you know that you’ve made a mistake.
  • Talk about goals: company goals, team goals, sprint goals. Make sure to remind your team about them during Scrum ceremonies. In many teams, OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) work great. Using them isn’t easy, but when you do it correctly, you can efficiently decompose organisational goals into team/individual goals.
  • Organisational culture is crucial for creating the environment allowing for self-organisation to emerge and develop.

Leadership for self-organisation

What I’m about to say now isn’t going to be popular, but here it is:

Self-organisation requires strong leadership.

I know, it’s weird to talk about leadership or a form of authority in an article about self-organised teams, especially in agile. But when agile isn’t enough, teams need quality leadership. It’s as simple as that.

What I’m talking about here is leading by example.

  1. A team realizing complex tasks (like software development) needs structure and a manager able to match talents and skills with specific roles.

We often consider team building as a one-time job. But that’s not how it works! A team is a living organism – it evolves, matures, and develops over time – through work and training. You can learn how to assess team dynamics, diagnose problems, and take the first steps to address them quickly.

  1. Teams need the guidance of a business-oriented leader who focuses on delivering value consistently and training self-organisation instead of just following methodologies.
  2. Balancing business and technological requests in product development is often challenging, but too much focus on tech aspects might lead to over-engineering. That’s why business-oriented leadership is so important.
  3. To succeed in driving team behaviors in the right direction, managers need to use incentive mechanisms.

The takeaway

Self-organisation can be a reality. But only as long as you accept these conditions:

Striving for self-organisation isn’t a project, but a never-ending process.

Paradoxically, self-organisation requires strong leadership. Managers need to be proficient at active listening, motivating, coaching, inspiring teams.

Let’s not forget about people and interactions (as per The Agile Manifesto), but also keep the ultimate company objectives in mind.

I believe that successful self-organisation requires from managers some highly-developed managerial skills. But to make the best decisions, they also need a hands-on approach and capacity to solve problems on the go, while keeping their eye firmly on the ultimate goal:

Improving of team processes.

That’s how managers can direct their teams towards self-organisation when the agile methodology isn’t enough.

If you want to implement agile successfully and reach the state of self-organisation in your team, you have to start educating people. You need to become a leader who understands human behaviours, processes, and intrinsic motivation that leads to a sense of responsibility and ownership.

That’s how you design a process that helps teams deliver top results and outperform your competition.

KamilKamil Sabatowski is the Chief Operations Officer at Sunscrapers , a Warsaw-based software development agency specializing in web development and data science.  Kamil completed his studies at the Warsaw School of Economics and now pursues an MBA degree there. He’s passionate about new technologies, corporate & competition strategy, and agile project management throughout the entire project life cycle.