How to Rule a Self-Organizing Team

Matthias Bohlen shares with us the importance of self organization. As a manager, you must set time or organizational boundaries that serve a purpose and let team members do what they think is appropriate and necessary within those boundaries.

The cellphone rang on a Sunday afternoon. The number on the display was new to me, so I slid my finger and curiously answered the call. The caller, however, was a coachee of mine whom I knew quite well. We have an agreement that in urgent cases he can call me even on a Sunday. He therefore did not hesitate to get right to the point.

“Matthias, this is George Markakis. I guess I could use your help once again.”

“Hello George, nice to hear your voice,” I said. “This phone number is new—what happened?”

“Last month, I left my old company and accepted a new position as the head of product development at Acme Software, right around the corner from here,” George told me. “Is there any chance that you can stop by on Monday so that we can talk?”

“First of all, let me congratulate to your new position, George! And yes, on Monday, I am in your area. We can meet at 3 p.m. if you want. Do you want to tell me what the challenge is?”

“Not now. You’ll see what I mean on Monday. See you at three.”

George is a fast guy. He will have a reason, I thought.

When I entered George’s office the next week, I saw a bandage around his head. “Hey, George, what happened? Nothing really serious, I hope?”

“No, just a little accident with the bike,” George replied. “My twenty-two-year-old daughter Julie and I met this weekend, and of course she wanted to impress me with something that she can do and I can’t. So we went for a speed ride on our bikes. I tried to insist that I could still keep up with her speed, even at my age. But when the road suddenly turned into cobblestone, the front wheel of my bike began to wobble so hard that I felt I was losing control of it.”

“That sounds dangerous,” I responded. “And what did you do?”

“I grasped the handlebar more firmly and the bike seemed to stabilize at first,” George explained. “However, the wobble went through my arms and body and suddenly influenced the entire bike. A moment later, I crashed and found myself sitting on the road.”

George then described how Julie helped him get up and collect his bike. After doing so, she commented on the accident.

“She said something about a mistake I made when I encountered the cobblestone road, “ said George. “But right now I cannot remember what she said, it was something about a firm grip on the handlebar.”

I felt that the elephant had left the room and decided that we should get to the real reason why he called me.

“George, I can’t help you with speed riding on the bike,” I stated. “What did you really call me for?”

George told me that after becoming the head of development at Acme, he had to take care of two particular development teams. Three months before George came, Acme had started an agile transformation initiative, and those two teams were the pilot teams for the use of agile methods.

George said, “When I came here, I noticed that the market and the customers are very different from what I know from my previous company. Every customer wants something different every two months or so, and no two customers are the same! They want our system to adapt quickly to their particular situation, and they are trying to make us get everything done yesterday.”

“And how did you react?” I asked.


User Comments

Peter Saddington's picture

I'm sorry. This is just rubbish.

I made an account specifically to comment on this post.
Language reflects your mental models. The type of language used in here is limiting and dangerous.

So what you're saying is that a "grip" of some sort on a team is helpful for them to succeed? Are you kidding me? This article is a horrible mashup of industrial thinking, improper metaphors and a general mis-understanding of knowledge, knowledge work, and knowledge workers.

You have just lost a subscriber to this blog.

February 28, 2013 - 9:12am
rtrosper's picture

I have to agree - I'm glad I skimmed it or I would have wasted even more time. There is NO useful advice contained herein that couldn't have been summed up with "work with the team" - which isn't much help.

February 28, 2013 - 3:25pm
Matthias Bohlen's picture

@rtrosper: Looks as if you are trying to save so much time that you sum up an entire article with 4 words. That's a disease of today. People think they have no time any more to sit at the fireplace and listen to a story, allowing their minds to digest and build up energy to act the next day. Sad thing!

March 1, 2013 - 5:49am
Clarke Ching's picture

Come on, Peter, that's just rude and angry.

I hope people don't *skim* the article, see this comment, then skip reading the entire text. It's a clever metaphor - one which I'll "borrow" - and I'm very glad I read the article.


March 1, 2013 - 11:10am
Leyton Collins's picture

Matthias, this is a great article with great analogies. This article covers something I learned myself several years ago in a management training class and a colleague of mine at the time also said he learned in Judo training. That lesson -- When dealing with an opposing force, just move to the side whenever possible. It’s also two of my favorite quotes from the Dalai Lama “Seek not to accept provocation” and “Seek to understand before seeking to be understood.”

A good manager understands that they need to know how much leeway and how many constraints to give each of their teams and team members; or as your article puts it how tight a grip is needed on what is going on.

Certain others may say otherwise. I’d suggest certain obtuse ignoramous individuals would not understand this no matter how many analogies or languages were used. Oops, was that accepting a provocation? Not for me. :-) LOL

February 28, 2013 - 1:16pm
Matthias Bohlen's picture

@Leyton Collins: Thank you for your positive feedback. However, I am not sure I get the Judo metaphor correctly. Who is the "opposing force" in this case? From my p.o.v., I see a triangular, tightly coupled system: the market, the team and the manager. Three agents, each one exchanging forces with the other two, respectively. Would be great if they could arrange themselves as an orchestra.

March 1, 2013 - 5:58am
Grey Beard's picture

Peter Saddington: I agree, but I think I'd describe it slightly differently: it's not that it's entirely wrong, it's that it's basic management.

Generalization of what the article says:
Micromanagement=bad; no management=bad.

This isn't revolutionary, nor is it rocket science.

If you're got prisoners or draftees digging ditches, then you need to keep that "tight grip", so they don't run away or dig the wrong ditch. If you've got smart people doing creative work, then you need to worry in the other direction: left too much on their own, they may (not "will", but MAY) drift off in directions other than what the group (company, in this case) needs.

I don't see where this has anything to do with Agile, unless it's that with Agile, the group may be more likely to say "Hey, stop that!" than with traditional word-comes-down-from-on-high management.

February 28, 2013 - 3:53pm
Matthias Bohlen's picture

@Grey Beard: It can seem revolutionary and rocket science to manage agile teams, depending on what you did before. For George, as he had never managed agile teams before, it definitely was rocket science! He really wasn't sure about how far he should go and whether it was his responsibility to interfere or not (e.g. "what do I do with all these urgent change requests?").

What this has to do with Agile? The dynamics between an agile team and their manager can be very complex and can lead to a clash of cultures. I have seen teams fail, I have seen projects fail and I have also seen managers fail and even lose their job in such a situation.

Understanding those dynamics can help a manager to be far more successful with his teams. The point is not that this is basic management. From my p.o.v., the point is helping people to see that and be able to act.

March 1, 2013 - 5:29am
Grey Beard's picture

Hmm. So it sounds like you're agreeing that it's basic management, but you suggest that an agile team is somehow different from any other team in needing to understand the relationship between the manager and the team. Maybe I've been too self-managed throughout my career -- I still don't see this as being specific to agile?! It would seem to apply to any team/manager relationship. If the point is that George wasn't "getting it", then it's still not that interesting -- it just means that George hasn't been exposed to agile and/or is a lousy manager.

March 1, 2013 - 10:22am
Matthias Bohlen's picture

@Peter Saddington: Hope you still read here – if not, my comment is for the other readers of this site.

Yes, Peter, language is important, of course. My use of language was deliberate: In the article, I used my coachee's language. Like many other managers, George really uses words like 'rule' and 'grip'. What if I had used language from Agile or from complex adaptive systems (CAS)?

For example, this piece of CAS language here would have failed wonderfully:

"George, make sure that you constrain your system of agents at least and only so much that your agents really experience a transforming exchange of signals. Make sure that your feedback allows them to adapt and adjust their signal-to-value transformation rules. And remember that you are also an agent in this complex adaptive system!"

Guess what George would have responded? "Matthias, WHAT ON EARTH are you talking about? Are you sure that you don't waste my time?"

Or, I could also have failed wonderfully using language from Scrum:

"George, make sure that you ask your teams to give you a potentially deliverable increment of business value at the end of each sprint. Let them self-organize around the question how that business value should be implemented. Make sure that your feedback allows them to learn what business value is, and remember: you are a part of all this!"

Guess what? George's response would have been almost the same as above!

As a coach, I always have to start with my coachee's language. Use words that he/she can understand. "A grip on the handlebar" was something he could understand because he liked speed bike riding. From there, the discussion went into George's team situation, his market situation (e.g. "how do you define/create value inside your market?") and then into the coupling between his teams, himself and the market (i.e. the bike, himself, and the cobblestone road).

And, yes, Peter, a "grip" of some sort on a team is helpful for them to succeed! The only problem is that "grip" does not mean "tell them what to do" but it means "constrain the number of options they need to consider so that they can focus on what is important and can decide for themselves."

Letting a self-organizing team run free without constraints is like playing a game without rules – it does not help anybody.

March 1, 2013 - 5:02am


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