Be careful with self-directed and self-selected teams

I believe too much power to the teams is risky in large scale agile implementations. Some of the reasons I have describe in When to use SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework).

Another aspect that concerns me is the level of self-organization.  I think too much self-organization or team autonomy might be risky.

Essentially there are three different aspects to consider; self-directed, self-selected and self-organizing. When most organizations talk about self-organization they usually mean that the team decides who in the team is going to do what and when and teams are responsible and accountable for their own work and results. The self-organizing team “commits” to a plan with the Product Owner and then it is up to them how to solve it – and initiate a new discussion when they can’t solve it. Self-selected means that the individuals in the organization choose themselves which team they will work in. Self-directed means no on else can direct the team in any sense, this usually means fewer managers or that managers no longer are leaders in the organization.

Larman and Vodde have taken self-selection and self-direction pretty far in their LeSS framework. Larman shares a story of self-selected teams in “How to form teams in large scale Scrum“.

I have some experience and thoughts around this. In one organization we had two pure feature teams. We were growing and we were not sure that three feature teams were the right way to go. So we drafted four different options that made sense and I facilitated a meeting with the teams were we looked into pros and cons with different options and also tried to figure out if there were any other ways to scale. Then the teams majority voted on their favorite option and it was decided to try it out and evaluate. It was a structure based on Requirements Areas rather than pure feature teams. On a side not, one of the options was more dynamic teams that would have made it easier (possibly) to always work on the highest priority things. This was suggested by management, but was completely killed by the teams:-) So far all is well, I am convinced this was the best choice, both for the teams and for the business. What I am saying here is that I believe self-designed (to add yet another term) can work fine most of the time.

How about self-selected then, isn’t that great? It’s just like in school when picking teams for football. I think it is empowering and refreshing – and if you are lucky it will work out great. Here’s what worries me:

  • As a manager I have on several occasions had colleagues who have wished to work with something I knew they were going to be bad at.  They have still been happy doing what they have been really good at, but if they had been given the total freedom to choose they would have chosen the thing they were not good at (and with limited potential to become good at) – which would have been painful for them, the team and for the business of the organization. And if it is major change in direction (as it has been on some occasions) you probably need to give it a year before arriving at this conclusion. As a manager you can usually handle this with coaching and helping your colleagues find their true strengths and be happy with this. Or they can try it out with limited consequences and might arrive at the right conclusion themselves. Anyway, I believe it can be handled better in one-on-one than in team sessions. And over multiple talks, rather than a rushed event.
  • On multiple occasions I have been working in organizations where some of the products would not have gotten any volunteers if everyone could choose completely by themselves. Those products are usually old, built on boring and old technology, sometimes with technical debt. And most of the time those are the products that are paying the salaries. I can think of several companies where we would have gone out of business fast if too few had selected to be on those teams. This is very common I believe. Those teams NEED to have people on them. And I believe it is better to handle this in piece and quiet in one-on-ones rather than under time pressure in a big room with all your colleagues. Of course with enthusiastic volunteers to the largest extent possible, but occasionally using other ways to convince people (I am not referring to bullying).

In general I think self-selected teams might work well if the context is right, but I advice thinking through possible scenarios and implications carefully before deciding to put this in the hands of the team. It is also very hard to go back once you have given this power to the teams. It is like taking a perk away, but it is a much, much bigger thing. Most of the time I believe the risks are higher than the potential upside.

I am also concerned with putting hiring/firing decisions within the teams as Larman and some other agile coaches are suggesting. Hiring might work out ok in some circumstances, but firing just feels wrong. It is a really major decision, it has to be worked skillfully by someone who is trained at it (or at least can get guidance). In the end it is always going to be one person who is having the talk, so why not let the manager handle that? I have a hard time picturing a team walking up to a colleague that they have worked very close with and standing in a ring and firing him/her. Larman is probably only referring to firing from the team, but that should be the same, you can’t do that as a group, it’s not healthy.

Extreme agile autonomy is a nice idea in theory, but I am afraid it wont work out in practice in many cases.  Maybe 10 years from now I will be like that guy that predicted the worlds computer market to 5 machines:-)

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