Self-organization is not just for software teams


What does the software industry know about teamwork that most companies don’t? Since the early 2000s, software companies have embraced the idea that the best and fastest way to build software is through the self-organization of cross-functional teams.

The concept of cross-functional self-organization is central to the Scrum software development methodology. The Scrum Guide explains why it works:

“Self-organizing teams choose how best to accomplish their work, rather than being directed by others outside the team. Cross-functional teams have all competencies needed to accomplish the work without depending on others not part of the team.”

Recently, companies outside the software industry have begun experimenting with the idea of self-organization, most notably Zappos, which issued a controversial mandate to its employees: self-organize or find employment elsewhere.

Here are a few reasons self-organization is gaining a foothold outside software:

Self-organization fosters creativity and innovation

Because they bring people with entirely different perspectives and information to the table, cross-functional teams have a big advantage over specialized teams when it comes to creative problem-solving. Self-organizing and selecting one’s own projects adds passion to the creative process. When individuals with diverse areas of expertise and interests collaborate around an idea or problem, a more rounded picture is formed and more innovative solutions emerge.

Speed and self-optimization

Self-organized teams achieve speed and efficiency through communication and autonomy. In Scrum, team members participate in daily face-to-face “standup” meeting in which they each talk about what they did yesterday, what they’re doing today, and what’s standing in their way.  Rather than a status meeting, the standup is an opportunity to give and get the information necessary to keep a project moving. When a team includes individuals with all the competencies required to complete the work and has permission to make its own decisions, the need to look elsewhere for help is eliminated.

Because self-organizing teams determine how their work will be accomplished, they’re free to continually improve their methods as they learn from their successes and failures. Over time, this ongoing fine-tuning process results in highly effective, highly efficient teams.

Loyalty and engagement

Allowing employees to choose projects, self-organize and define the way they work results in a greater sense of ownership and greater investment in project outcomes. When employees are engaged in their work in this way, they’re more productive, more effective and more loyal to their employers. In a hiring climate in which good talent is hard to come by, companies have to do everything possible to hang on to their top performers.

How to do it

Enabling teams to self-organize often requires a shift in culture and/or hierarchy. An organization’s structure can’t be too siloed, and power can’t be too concentrated at the top. While daily standup meetings may not critical to a self-organized team’s success, open communication is. Team members must have access to the answers and expertise they need when they need it or projects will stall.

The best way to support a self-organizing team is to stay out of its way. Give team members as much autonomy as possible, and provide them with an environment in which they can collaborate freely and continuously. Trust them to do the job well and they will not disappoint.