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While many people mention self-organizing/self-managing teams, I'm having hard times finding out the precise definition. Self-organization by itself seems clear: you're not pushed by external force. Instead you're capable and motivated to pull new work yourself and push the project forward.

But when saying self-organizing team - do we mean "the team as a whole" or "each team member"? Say you have a good leader on the team, and the rest seek his guidance. Is this team self-organized?

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Self-organizing teams is a trend in the professional world for some time. An increasing amount of organizations are turning to self-organizing teams to increase ownership, teamwork and collaboration.

The typical structure (what many envision when talking about self-organizing) for these teams is the “no leader”-approach. In this approach, teams adopt a democratic practice. These teams move forward, only when all members agree on the path to take. For most teams, this works very well. But, this also led to a common misconception. Because this practice works so well, some assume the hive mind should be in the lead all the time. That teams should always decide on everything together and by themselves. That there is no room for leaders, inside and outside of the team.

Yet, leaders are all around us. Presidents run countries. Silverback gorillas guide their troops. And influencers on social media inspire their followers. Some leaders we elect. Some rise to power by violence. And others we follow by choice. All social structures need leaders. Organizations are a social structure and so are teams. Self-organizing teams are no exception. The leadership role might over time transition from one person to another or might be different based on the topics at hand, but there will always be an informal leader in self-organizing teams. If not, the team will come to a grinding halt.

Before we continue, let's make sure we are talking about the same thing. Management is often confused with leadership, but these are not the same. Management is about making sure day-to-day operations are running smoothly. Leadership is about inspiring and gathering people around ideas. Both are necessary for organizations and teams, and some leaders are also managers but don‘t mistake that for it being the same.

This mix-up of leading and managing, and the notion that the collective intelligence of teams should be leading, has a lulling effect on many. Team members no longer stand up and take the lead when they could, assuming the collective should work it out; that there is no room for leadership. At the same time, it has a crippling effect on managers outside of the team. Out of fear of interfering with a team’s autonomy and its self-organizing capabilities, they are reluctant to share their vision and opinions.

This is a dangerous development. Collaboration and deliberation are necessary for teams to make collective decisions as well as for individuals to learn and grow. The hive mind is very important in teams but just won’t work without leadership inside and outside of the team. Even more so when maturity-levels of individual team members vary. Self-organizing teams need enough autonomy, but not too much. Enough for team members to feel engaged, responsible, and accountable for their own contributions, but not so much that they are overwhelmed and unable to deliver results. Self-organizing teams need clear boundaries within which they are autonomous.

Within these boundaries, individual team members have to take the helm. If no one takes the lead, teams will at some point come to a standstill. But, there needs to be a balance. There needs to be room for other team members to contribute, make mistakes and learn all the while making sure the team progresses and avoids big screw-ups. Self-organizing teams are supposed to work everything out as a collective. But, it can not do that without individual team members taking the lead. Who need to respect the opportunities for other team members as well.

For managers outside of the team, the trick is to balance autonomy with alignment. Henrik Kniberg created the following four quadrants to illustrate this: Autonomy vs Alignment

Organizations with self-organizing teams can not let go of alignment. Moreover, it is a requirement to allow autonomy. It is up to management to share their vision and lead the troops. But here’s the kicker, it needs to happen on the right level. Don’t tell a team what it is they need to do or how to do it. Inspire them. Make sure they understand the challenge at hand. Allow them to understand the why of their assignment and let them work it out from there. A tool I've co-developed to enable this is the Alignment Canvas

There is a place for leadership in and around self-organizing teams. But, the challenge is to show direction on the right level while respecting the boundaries of the autonomy of team members and teams.

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Team as a whole

The definition of self-organization gets complicated by the many forms self-organization can take, which depend on a lot of factors: on the company, on the project, on the individual team members's strengths and weaknesses, on their skills, and on their willingness to do certain things and not others (like for example taking the lead, be it for the team itself or for certain work, in certain situations).

If each team member is self organized and they find a way to work together to push the project forward, then the team is self-organized. If there is a team lead that pulls everyone along and everyone looks at them for guidance, but they manage to push the project forward, then the team is again self-organized.

But because there isn't a strict definition of self-organization that guarantees a positive result every time, and in every situation, it also means that some forms of self-organization will be better than others.

In the second example above, the team can become dependent on the team lead. The team lead can also become a bottle neck. If the team lead is sick or on vacation, or otherwise engaged, the rest of the team is basically on "idle mode". People won't even hold the daily stand-up meeting if the team lead is not present.

You said in your question:

Self-organization by itself seems clear: you're not pushed by external force.

This is correct. But let's look again at the second example above. The team is not pushed by external force, because the team lead is within the team, but nevertheless, the result is the same: someone tells others what to do. This is a not a good form of self-organization.

An Agile team that does "inspect and adapt" will recognize this fact and they will look for another form of organization. Maybe they pair to share the knowledge, maybe they take the lead by rotation so each learns how to pick up the pieces if something gets broken in the team composition, etc. Of course, each team member being able to self-organize on their work contributes to this, but it's the team as a whole that needs to self-organize, because self-organizing individuals doesn't necessarily mean that they properly collaborate with the rest of their (also) self-organized team members.

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  • You won't find a precise definition because self-organization depends on a lot of factors - well, there are only 2 options that I laid out. And you seem to agree with one of them :) So doesn't seem like it's particularly hard to define. Thanks! Jan 30 at 10:36
  • @StanislavBashkyrtsev: well, if you take away the many forms that self-organization can take, then yes, you end up with a simple definition. But when people need to self-organize, they often ask "How?", for which there isn't a simple answer because it depends on the context.
    – Bogdan
    Jan 30 at 10:54
  • I can agree that "How" won't have a single answer. But my question is only about the definition. It seemed to me that many people imply the definition #2 when they talk about self-organizing teams. That's why I wanted to get explicit answers/opinions. Jan 30 at 11:41
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The 'leader' should mentor other team members to progressively decide more things for themselves

As per the Scrum Guide there is no 'leader' role among the Developers, everyone is a 'Developer':

Within a Scrum Team, there are no sub-teams or hierarchies... They are also self-managing, meaning they internally decide who does what, when, and how.

In practice, though, it is possible that one person is looked up for advice by the rest of the team members because of their knowledge and/or experience. While helping them when needed, this person should nudge them to progressively make those decisions for themselves. In short, they should take on the role of a mentor rather than making the team members dependent on the 'leader'.

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  • This doesn't seem give a direct answer. What if he doesn't nudge? What if it all stays as is: he keeps leading the team, they keep looking up to him. But this leader is part of the team and everything's great with team's motivation, progress, etc. Would you say it's not a self-organizing team? Jan 30 at 11:57
  • No, it is not a "self-organizing team", it is a "hierarchical team". Jan 31 at 5:11
  • Okay, so for now we have 2 opposite answers :) Jan 31 at 8:17

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