“Why aren’t self-organizing teams allowed to self-organize?”

This question came up in a Certified Scrum Developer (CSD) class I was in last week… To clarify, what he went on to say with more specificity was, “Why don’t we let our agile teams self-organize ‘at creation’ when we’re putting together a new team?” He went on to note that, in his experience, this is determined by ‘Management Fiat,’ primarily based on the talent and maturity of the individuals. Hmmm, interesting question…

What does Scrum say about this?

The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams

One Agile Consultant in the class said he’d been doing this for a long time, and he’d never been in an organization where folks were allowed to actually self-organize into agile teams. They were all handpicked by someone at the management level.

But what if we gave the teams a goal and let ’em fly? What if we truly allowed them to self-organize into agile Scrum teams on their own, without being told who would be on what team? Would we end up with a bunch of experienced folks on one team and a bunch of inexperienced on another? Would it become a bunch of cliques, like high school? Would we have agile teams that consisted of only developers, and other agile teams only of testers?


Let’s assume that it did. Then what? Would we expect management to say, “Stop right there. We need to be smart and fair about this. You go here, and you go there,” until the teams were more evenly spread with the ‘right mix’ of roles and experience. I suspect this is what would happen in the vast majority of cases.

But management isn’t impervious to making mistakes. The teams should be allowed to as well. We’re empirical. We inspect and adapt. If there’s a change needed among the teams, allow the teams to make the change. Involve management as needed.

Have you ever been given that kind of freedom to self-organize into agile teams? If so, what was your experience? If not, are you willing to have a conversation with management to give this a shot?

What is Scrum? Scrum is easy. Scrum is hard. Let’s hear your thoughts.


Join the Discussion

    • Richard L Wiseman

      Well that ‘self organizing team’ thing works well in education with kids of 11- 16 age range; groups tend to form with like minded individuals, which cuts down on personality clashes, quite naturally leaders emerge easily and skills are owned and used. It’s a good model.

    • Steve g.

      As in nature, complex organisms only begin to properly self organize once boundaries are in place. Boundaries of “Each team must have the following skill sets…” or “Each team must be able to create business value at the end of each iteration to include the agreed-upon doneness criteria…” are both fair and reasonable. The rules then begin to stir conversation between team members.

    • Mike McLaughlin

      Thanks Steve. Agree wholeheartedly on your skill sets and expectations setting point. Give the folks a goal and then allow them to self-organize into teams to achieve it.

    • Willem-Jan Ageling

      What a great article. I agree with Steve g. that a set of rules would be great in this context.

    • Sandy Mamoli


      We have done large scale self-selection with ca. 125 people at New Zealand’s largest eCommerce provider.

      We have blogged about it here:http://nomad8.com/total-squadification-large-scale-self-organisation/ and here: http://nomad8.com/the-self-organising-organisation/
      Published an article in Methods and Tools: http://www.methodsandtools.com/archive/selfselectingteams.php
      Presented at Agile 2014: http://www.agilealliance.org/resources/learning-center/self-selecting-organisation-standing-shoulders-giants (you need to be a member to watch)

      We’re also in the process of writing a book and will be finished in a couple of months! If you’d like me to let you know when the book’s available let me know and I’ll add you to my list of people to inform.

      Also, Andy Kelk has done large scale self-selection at Australia Post. He has blogged about it here: http://www.andykelk.net/agile/empowering-self-organising-teams-with-self-selection

      Oh, and I totally think you should give it a go 🙂

    • Rutger van Dijk

      At our project (4 teams, 2-weeks-sprint, current sprint 109) we shuffle about every quarter. And yes, the teams (we) have full control over how the teams are organised. After the initl shuffle we look at the teams to see if they’re ‘balanced’. Which for us means a mix of developers, business-analists, test, dba, … Although we’re al multi-disciplinaire, we still think it’s wise not to create a team with only developers, or 4 analysts and one dev. for example.

      There are several techniques on how to do this kind of shuffles, most of the time it an exercise made just-in-time. Like ‘standing in a row, random numbers step forward, random numbers backward’.

      Works great, final question is ‘is everybody happy with the result?’. If yes, go team!

    • Satish Thatte

      Ba- is the Zen of Scrum, a shared “context in motion and the energy that drives a self-organizing team.

      You may see more information on Ba here: http://scalingsoftwareagilityblog.com/on-ba-at-a-scrum-of-scrums/470820748/

      Satish Thatte

    • Muhammad Sarmad Malik

      First, when i read this principle i got confused. The principle used to convey that if the teams are self-organized they can provide better productivity, while we used to follow the environmental behavior that is completely different. But after some case studies i found it very interesting and productive.

    • Seifeddine Mejri

      I really like the idea of Self-Organizing Teams; I think it increases the employees’ engagement within the company as long as it is well adopted by the teams and not botched. Indeed, team members must endeavor to ensure that the teams are well balanced. In order to not fall in that trap, the product owner needs to set up succinct boundaries prior to starting the process of creating a self-organized team as well as not having the management interfere and decide on the team structure as you said. Furthermore, assigning a scrum master would facilitate the implementation of that process. Moreover, do not initiate the project until having everyone agree on the team they are on.

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