Sometimes, teams need a little nudge to help to self-organize. Remember ‘self-organize’ means the team takes ownership of not only how to produce the desired end results, but they are active participants in understanding the product/project and they work together to ensure they are operating as a team. It is not too uncommon for teams to sit back and wait to be told to self-organize. I usually see this with newly formed teams or teams who have historically worked under command-and-control environments.

A colleague of mine argues that most people operate this way — they want to be told what to do. Part of me agrees with this concept; I see this during training sessions all the time. But I don’t think this lack of self-starting, self-organization stems from people not knowing how and needing to be told. Instead, I think it’s people waiting to be given permission. This behavior comes through loudly in training sessions with folks new to agile. I’ll often use various interactive, facilitative techniques during training and it usually takes at least one person to help get the interaction going. Some of the tricks and advice I’ve used/received not only work during training workshops, but the same things can also be applied by ScrumMasters (as well as those in leadership positions) to help kick-start or trigger a team to self-organize.

These tricks are:

Practice the Pregnant Pause. The idea is that if you want to trigger conversation, create silence. Here’s how it works. State the problem or objective, or simply a broad statement about which you want to trigger a conversation. Now, here’s where the fun begins. Count to nine; let the silence begin. In fact, if you have to count to 99, I guarantee that someone will break the silence. A good friend of mine called it “doing a Michael Cain”… say something, throw in a long pause, and just let the team fill in. If they don’t, then maybe the meeting or discussion is over.

Storming. I’m not referring to Tuckman; instead, I’m talking about brainstorming. There are some great techniques you can leverage out there that will get team members involved, even those who are normally quiet. All you need is a whiteboard, maybe some easel paper, Post-it-Notes and some markers. It is amazing to see what starts happening when someone throws out a question or a problem statement, and then watching a team start brainstorming ideas.

Get Out. Yes that’s right, sometimes it’s best to just throw out an idea and instruct the team to come up with the solution; then walk out of the room. I’ve done this myself, and I’ve never been let down — even with brand-new teams.

Become a Facilitator Master. Above I mentioned brainstorming; to do it well, you’ll need to practice and learn some techniques. There are many good books that can help: Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers by David Grey, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo; Unfolding the Napkin: The Hands-On Method for Solving Complex Problems with Simple Pictures by Dan Roam; and Visual Meetings: How Graphics, Sticky Notes and Idea Mapping Can Transform Group Productivity by David Sibbet. Taking a few hours to read these books and a couple hours practicing some of the facilitating techniques will carry you a long way and help out the team greatly.

Have Some Fun. It sounds easy, but it has been shown time and time again that the team’s productivity is often related to their attitude and the general feeling around the project. When the team starts getting too busy or too tense, this is the time when the ScrumMaster should step in, assist, slow-down, or just feed the team with encouragement and substance.

Join the Discussion

    • Joe Baker

      Thanks Matt – great post.
      I love the technique “present a problem and then walkout”. I’ve used this technique multiple times in the past when I’ve felt that a team had become to dependent on the facilitation process. Actually, this taught me a lesson about how a team can be “over facilitated”, thus rendering them to become dependent on the facilitator to solve problems.
      I worked with a team that had lots of strong willed passionate members that had a hard time negotiating with one another. Through months of practice we would get together in our formal sessions, and as a facilitator I would help them remove the “passion” part of the roadblock in order to restate the issue in subjective or non-personal terms, or even positive terms.
      Then it became clear to me that they would hold onto those problems until we met as a group and expect that a neutral party would help them through it.
      The revelation that they could do this themselves, after I stated the problem and left the room, turned out to be the trick to break the ice. From that point on we could see that folks were less hesitant to engage and self-organize in problem solving conversations.

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