Thursday, November 27, 2008

The dark side of self-organizing teams

Agile methodologies focus on the notion of self-organizing teams, as a key to software development success. This works for a lot of reasons: talent is not constrained to follow a pre-defined process, the process is adaptive and tailored on the individuals and so on.

But it looks so beautiful and simple in books, and so hard to achieve in reality. One reason is that there are two main patterns for self-organizing team creation:
  • being already on one
  • spontaneously creating one
Penguins are self organizing. Males stay in the middle of the antarctic continent for months with an egg on their feet keeping each other warm, and discussing about politics and soccer. At springtime female penguins arrive from their shopping and fishing just in time to start feeding the new born baby penguins. Young penguins follow the group habits without questioning and the ritual goes on and on like this year after year.

Creating a new group involves discovering common passion, is just like starting playing baseball in a small town. Maybe 2 kids are just playing with a ball and a bat. Another one joins the two, same day same hour, then later on, they discover they’re enough to form a real team. There can be some key moments in the growing phase, but many times, the original vision is shared by the majority of the team.

What is really hard, is trying to transform a team who’s always been directed from above, into a self-organizing team. There are so many things that can get in the way, that is often better to start with a newly formed group instead of turning an existing team into a self organizing one.

...not necessarily good
But the notion of self organizing team is not necessarily good in itself. Self organizing teams can be pretty nasty, (Mafia, Al-Quaeda, Ku-Klux-Klan are all examples of self organizing teams, as this interesting post says). But the question is not only tied to team ethics, it’s also related to what the team can do to achieve its goals, which involves powers and responsibilities.

If you follow soccer a bit you’ll probably know the story of Antonio Cassano. One of the most talented Italian players, he played in AS Roma for a while. After some initial success, its role (not his skills) started being questioned. AS Roma sold Cassano to Real Madrid and right after that started an impressive record of 11 victories in a row. After the embarrassing parenthesis in Spain, now Cassano is doing fine again with Sampdoria. This is a clear example of how a team can improve as a team by getting rid of some talent.

Talent is hard to manage (and this could be the subject of a dedicated post), but the key point here is that the team might decide to drop team members that don’t share the same values with the rest of the team. You need to grant this right to the team, otherwise shared vision and behavior will never emerge, but you’ll also need to be prepared to the consequences, as a manager or as a team member. And consequences can be pretty nasty: like telling a colleague that he/she is not welcome (maybe with some “unless...”).
One key point is to be sure that the most influential team members have a positive influence on the team. If you can’t guarantee that, you’re probably doomed, right from the start.
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