Five Challenges for Self-Organizing Teams
As prominent studies make the business value of team performance more tangible than ever before, the science behind great teams is becoming a huge focus in the marketplace. Amid this search for optimal team management paradigms, the “self-organizing team” has become one of the hottest buzzwords.
Rather than rely on outside direction, self-organizing teams choose how to best accomplish their work without constant input and supervision.  The self-organizing team is capable of exercising agency once provided with broad operational goals.
Enterprises can’t just wave their hand and create these self-sufficient working groups. Developing this capability requires solving key management challenges to institutionalize a proactive business culture. We have organized these fundamental challenges and then examined each in more detail.
What inhibits self-sufficiency on a team?
- Lack of product vision.
- Lack of explicit prioritization.
- Absence of a clear “definition of done.”
- Lack of technological experience.
- Fear of failure.
Lack of product vision: Teams can’t be truly self-sufficient if they’re only familiar with their own individual tasks. Team members should have a clear understanding of the “why”, the objective and impact of their project, and its key strategic underpinnings. Product vision not only drives greater personal investment and more informed decision making, but a more self-sufficient capacity for confronting the rest of the challenges on this list: everything from priorities to requisite tech knowledge will flow down from these strategic imperatives.
Lack of explicit prioritization: On a truly self-sufficient team, developers will pick up a task from the backlog and start working on it—without having to go to product manager. Looking back to the last challenge, strategic awareness is a great first step for enabling more fluid, self-directed task management. More specifically, product managers need an explicit prioritization scheme to keep developers working in unison toward their ultimate goal. Smart, explicit prioritization allows the full-team, rather than just the product manager, to apply their skills to solving key issues.
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Absence of a clear “definition of done:” teams need a clearly delineated finish line, which offers developers a concrete, final milestone to work towards. Poorly defined endpoints can lead to sprawling efforts, even as key tasks are left undone. A goal needs to be formulated to ensure that no stone is left unturned, including:
- Automation & manual testing
- Peer review
- Customer Documentation
- Product manager/Business review
Lack of technical experience: A truly self-sufficient team needs to make each developer responsible for their own work, but this practice can’t’ come at the expense of ignoring divergent skill levels and ongoing professional development. A defined process for peer review and development helps draw down mistakes in the medium to long term while limiting “defect leakage” from code created by less experienced programmers.
Fear of Failure: One dynamic will ruin budding self-sufficiency every single time: an environment where failure is punished more than success is rewarded. Risk aversion is anathema to self-sufficiency and proactivity.  Especially for less experienced resources, a “no shame” policy for errors will drive far more proactivity. Feedback should be focused on addressing the issue and keeping communication open. Mistakes happen, and they’re far more costly when they’re ignored until the last minute—or persist because asking is costlier than keeping quiet.
Next to the science of software development and program management, these points may feel trivial. But otherwise talented teams neglect them all the time! There’s a reason some of the most respected companies in the world are pouring money into research on teamwork.
Having seen them up close and solved them as a matter of routine, Windmill Smart Solutions has documented best practices to specifically overcome each these challenges. The integration of best practices for building effective, self-sufficient teams is, quite simply, essential to the efficient delivery of impact technology solutions in today’s marketplace.
- Mendonca, C. (2016). [Blog] About self-organizing teams. Available at: https://www.scrum.org/resources/blog/about-self-organizing-teams [Accessed 30 Jul. 2018].
- Tool, M. (2018). Overcoming Fear of Failure. [online] Available at: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/fear-of-failure.html [Accessed 1 Aug. 2018].