How to make self organising teams work

by Bee Heller
August 1, 2017

In the tech world, self organising teams are often seen as the best way for an organisation to manage itself. Development teams are deliberately structured in small, self organising groups and encouraged to manage their own work.

Frederic Laloux’s fantastic book ‘Reinventing Organisations‘ shows us that it’s not just technology companies that are successfully practicing self organisation. Laloux describes examples from industries as diverse as nursing, manufacturing, engineering and energy.

Scrum (the agile methodology used by most tech businesses) prescribes a team size of between 5 and 9 people. Laloux’s examples demonstrate that while between 5 and 9 people may not be strictly necessary, small teams do seem to be a theme of successful self organisation.

Buurtzorg, a community nursing provider in the Netherlands, is built around teams of up to 12 nurses who work together to manage all aspects of patient care, client acquisition, nurse recruitment etc. in their region. 9,000 nurses operating nationally are supported by less than 50 people in a central function. At metal manufacturer FAVI, work is organised in teams of 15 to 35 people. Each team is generally dedicated to a specific customer or customer type. While there are some dedicated roles with responsibility for quality, engineering, administration and sales support, there is no middle management and the only way to effect change is by influence rather than explicit power.

However be under no illusions, restructuring your organisation into small teams and removing middle management, will not magically transform your hierarchical, command and control culture into a self organising utopia.

If you really want to make self organising teams work in your organisation, here are some of the other things you’ll need to think about…

1. Fewer or no senior leadership decision making meetings.

Rather than senior leaders spending all their time in meetings making decisions to then feed instructions and plans out to the rest of the organisation, they should be out in the business, learning what’s going on and connecting people who can learn from and help each other.

2. Operational meetings taking place on the front line.

Self organising teams should come together regularly for short operational updates and to make decisions about who needs to do what and how. Any other meetings should be organised on an ad hoc basis when people decide they are needed to discuss specific topics with a broader or different set of people. These may involve senior leaders but should not be set up as a new regular meeting sucking up time and energy.

3. Keep the overall organisational structure relatively flat.

Support roles should be minimal and where they do exist they should not have explicit power over operational teams. Their role should be to guide and influence operational teams using their expertise and skills. All responsibility and decision making should remain with operational teams at all times.

4. Individuals should decide what roles they want to do.

People should not be given specific job titles or areas of responsibility. Instead it should be up to individuals to decide for themselves how best they think they can contribute. The group then needs to ensure that between them everything can be achieved.

5. Use technology to aid knowledge sharing and networking across the organisation.

A challenge with self organising teams is ensuring not too much time and effort is wasted learning the same thing in multiple parts of the organisation. Technology can be a really efficient way of supporting teams to learn from each other and connect over common challenges and opportunities.

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