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There may be a situation when half of the self-organizing team isn't accepting a decision proposed the the other half of the self-organizing team. This situation effectively stops the project's progress.

Is it a flaw in self-organizing teams concept?

It doesn't matter whether the team is evenly split - even if only a couple of members of the team are disagreeing with the rest of the team, then the whole team may become just a group of individuals working on assigned tasks.

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    More generally, this question is the subject of a lot of anarchist political theory; this is where people start citing "The Tyranny of Structurelessness" and other references. – pjc50 Oct 16 at 9:22
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If the team is truly self-organizing, then the members would recognize that they have an issue that needs outside assistance and would, among themselves, find a way to resolve it. One option would be seeking someone else, either inside or outside the organization, who is a subject matter expert who can provide an expert decision. Another option would be to find someone who can moderate a discussion and facilitate a decision-making process. The team would be able to find these and other options and then select a method of resolution.

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    it is worth noting that there are many ways to resolve disagreements that do not require the team to give up autonomy. As Thomas says, part of self-organizing is also establishing how the team resolves disagreements. – Daniel Oct 14 at 13:58
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    To avoid seeking outside help for every other issue, a team should probably also agree on a general decision-making process (e.g. majority rule unless someone raises some particularly strong objections and the issue is deemed to be important enough to justify a more satisfactory resolution). – NotThatGuy Oct 15 at 23:07
  • @NotThatGuy I think that's a given. If the team is having a disagreement, I would consider that to be reflective of a case where the decision-making process has broken down, or perhaps a case that is not accounted for by the decision-making process has come up. Even if it's not formally documented, every group or team that I've been on has had to work out a decision-making process. – Thomas Owens Oct 15 at 23:33
  • @ThomasOwens I guess what I meant to say was the process should account for and be able to resolve most situations where not everyone agrees, even after discussion, especially when there isn't a "right" answer and it mostly comes down to opinion. Of course agreeing on such a process may simply mean deciding in the moment what to do the first time any given problem arises. – NotThatGuy Oct 15 at 23:58
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In Scrum, "the team" is ultimately deciding how to implement stuff (within constraints that may be given by the organization.)

Of course, this depends on the team being able to work together and come to a consensus. If one half insists that code must be written in C while the other half doesn't accept anything but Java you don't have a coherent team anymore.

It would be the Scrum Master's job to lead the team to come to a consensus, but he's not supposed to dictate a decision. Depending on the individual members of the team, this may be a pretty hard task. If someone said that Scrum Master is an easy role that you can do on the side they've been lying...

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  • I made my question more general. This not the problem of Scrum Master, but one of self-organizing teams. – Daniel Oct 14 at 10:56
  • @Daniel Don't move the goal posts during the game. Your question was a good one and is now too broad. Please revert your edit. – Jan Doggen Oct 14 at 12:11
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    The defining feature of a self-organizing team is that it is able to organize itself. If they can't do this, they are not usable as a team, just as a worker who can't work isn't usable as a worker anymore. – Hans-Martin Mosner Oct 14 at 12:18
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Self organizing is not an automatic statement about a SCRUM team. You don't get it simply by using SCRUM. The goal is to get to that point, and SCRUM's advocates claim that it helps you get there.

The self organizing concept is tempered by a key line from the SCRUM guide

Individual Development Team members may have specialized skills and areas of focus, but accountability belongs to the Development Team as a whole.

While the development team is free to choose how to approach the work in the backlog (self organizing), they are accountable for completing the work. SCRUM says that leadership should not assign accountability/blame to any one team member, but they can assign it to the team as a whole.

If there is a major division in the team, but they can still be held accountable for getting the work done, that's just a particularly pathological version of a self-organizing team. And, of course, SCRUM won't recognize that particular division, but the team is welcome to be divided.

If they are not succeeding, then the team is held accountable. The SCRUM guide offers no guidance at all as to what this means. It's a case-by-case sort of thing. But it would certainly be reasonable for leadership to dissolve the SCRUM team and switch to another development model if SCRUM is not meeting business needs. Or, perhaps less drastically, implement an almost-SCRUM that includes some heavy handed forces on team dynamics to resolve a business concern. Maybe, after it is resolved and people's emotions are repaired, they can transition back from almost-SCRUM to true SCRUM.

I would hope that there would be substantial attempts to rectify the situation first. If you read between the lines on the Product Owner and SCRUM Master's jobs, you can see that part of their unofficial job is to help resolve these sorts of things before the team fails to accomplish their mission. Indeed, the Product Owner is identified as being accountable for the development effort as a whole, so they are on the hook to make the development happen.

Fundamentally, this is where the line between procedure and people sits. Good leaders know that they have to work with people, not just procedures. If your Product Owner and SCRUM Master are good leaders, they will already be trying to help you resolve this. If you have a team of aspiring good leaders, they will hopefully be trying to learn how to resolve this.

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  • And, of course, if everyone is behaving like children, then the result will be a failure, regardless of what development model you are championing at the time. – Cort Ammon Oct 15 at 2:50
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The chance that a team is evenly split on a decision between (options) and even after discussion becomes deadlocked exists but it is extremely small.

There is a higher chance that two people in the team have opposing opinions and adamantly hold to those opinions. In that case, the majority could push their idea through, but that will probably have the same result as when an appointed leader pushes their idea through: you get resentment in the team and the team starts to fall apart into a bunch of people that are assigned to work together.

The most common situation with self-organizing teams that I see is that various team members are seen as subject-matter experts in different areas of the project and when a discussion comes up involving their area of expertise, their opinion is given slightly more weight by the rest of the team.

If a deadlock threatens to occur in a team, self-organizing or not, then someone should either step up as a mediator or escalate the problem to get someone in as a mediator who is trusted by both sides to be impartial.

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    In my experience, it exists and approaches unity. Agreement and consensus are unnatural behaviors that have to be carefully cultivated. – Mark C. Wallace Oct 14 at 11:31
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    @MarkC.Wallace, count me lucky then that I have never encountered a deadlock in a team in my 20 years working as a contractor. There might not have been instantaneous consensus, but we were always able to reach an agreement. – Bart van Ingen Schenau Oct 14 at 11:36
  • Which suggests to me that you are skilled and effective in cultivating the required consensus. Either that or your teams are not humans. I'd put my money on the first. <grin> – Mark C. Wallace Oct 14 at 11:43
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It is part of the Scrum Master's responsibility to remove impediments and the Product Owner's responsibility to optimise the value of the team's work. Clearly they should have a role to play in resolving this kind of problem. Other specialists could be consulted to provide another opinion.

Making teams self-organising doesn't guarantee co-operation, it just creates a good environment in which the opinion of team members is valued and innovation is encouraged. Ultimately, self-organising doesn't have to mean self-managing however and realistically a line manager or other senior will usually have something to say if progress is stalled by the team's indecision.

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"Sometimes ... authority has its privileges."

You prefer not to have to use it, but if a "self-directing" team is deadlocked, sometimes you need to reach down, grab the log, pull it out of the stream and throw it up onto the bank.

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