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In Agile/Scrum teams, the concept of a self-organizing team and the notion that "the team owns all the stories, individuals don’t" is turning out to be difficult to communicate. I have seen lots of articles and many pages of text explaining this.

One example I have heard is that of people cleaning up a messy conference room, after a teamwork exercise involving sticky notes, posters, markers, paper aeroplanes, balloons...etc. Nobody tells anyone what to do – everyone pitches in to do some part of the clean-up until it is all completed.

Are there other good examples to help convey this idea to the team?

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Can you narrow this down by explaining what you've tried, and why it doesn't work for you? As posted, it's currently too broad and likely to result in search-engine answers. –  CodeGnome Feb 12 '13 at 15:12

2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Instead of explaining, let them experience it! Use one of the many team building games where they will understand during the game that they need to cooperate and organise.

Here a typical example:

  • create small groups of 2-5 people
  • have 3-4 such groups
  • give each team an envelope containing a puzzle (20 pieces maybe or maybe some small lego set, etc.)
  • tell them that they should finish all puzzles
  • count down and start the race

Depending on your wording, they will get the feeling that it is a race and the group finishing their puzzle first will win. However, there is a trick:

  • each envelope contains pieces from another's group's puzzle :-)
  • in order to complete the task, the groups will need to start communicating

After some time, they will notice it and ask what to do. Don't answer, just let them proceed. They will solve it on their own.

After the game you should help them to reflect on what happened. They started as independent groups, but were only able to solve the overall problem by working together and self organising.

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TL; DR

You're not going to be able to find a single example that exemplifies all the various concepts that are typically rolled into the term self-organization. To find an appropriate example for your use case, you need to decide what specific behavior you're trying to model.

What Your Example Models

Nobody tells anyone what to do – everyone pitches in to do some part of the clean-up until it is all completed.

I'm not sure this example communicates anything beyond "you're on your own." Yes, I can see how you can retcon a theme of self-management around the convenience of having people clean up the conference room, but I don't think it sends the right message.

The actual behavior you're trying to model with the example you provided is:

  1. Individual initiative.
  2. Lack of prescriptive command-and-control.
  3. Bottom-up planning and execution.

These are certainly aspects of self-organization, but none of these things really highlight the collective ownership that you say you want to model. You need a different approach.

Model "Collective Planning" Instead

In my personal experience, the concept of collective ownership is best modeled through Planning Poker exercises that are stretched to include all members of a cross-functional team. For example, you might use a login-page story and encourage the team to stretch the development story to include technical writing, database architecture, or network topology to show that the whole team needs to be part of the plan and execution.

Model "Cross-Functional Participation" Instead

You might also consider trying an exercise that requires every member of the team to add value to a story, in order to show that a story can't be completed without the participation of the whole team.

For example, you might give everyone on the team a single facial feature for Mr. Potato Head. Everyone adds value to Mr. Potato Head by adding an eye or an ear, or ensuring that parts are in the right places. By passing the head around a circle, you model whole-team participation in the definition of done.

NOTE: You might be tempted to try to make this particular example more more free-form in order to model the communication necessary to swarm or self-organize around a team-developed solution, but in my experience the task is both too prescriptive and too simplistic to make that point effectively. Your mileage may vary.

Use Multiple Exercises with Inspect-and-Adapt

Self-organization is a surprisingly complex concept to communicate. Each exercise should clearly communicate an individual facet of this concept. As a corollary, focusing on facets of self-organization rather than the gestalt may require you to use more than one example to illustrate your points, and to iteratively refine the team's understanding over time.

Feel free apply Scrum's "inspect and adapt" concepts to your team exercises. If you have a point to make, use a review or retrospective of the exercise to make sure the point was communicated effectively, and set the stage for improvement of future exercises.

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You said - I'm not sure this example communicates anything beyond "you're on your own." - Doesn't sound like the lesson to be learned. All behavior is reward-oriented. In order to get people to self-organize, all you have to do is to provide appropriate incentive. Look at grassroots campaigns or potlucks. The best are when all understand the goals and work together to achieve them, filling gaps and solving problems as they arise. –  r00fus Feb 14 '13 at 19:33

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