How to Rule a Self-Organizing Team


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

Matthias Bohlen's picture

To the webmaster of this site: My comment above was beautifully formatted. After submit, it's only a large block of unreadable text. Could you teach this blog software to respect line separators and empty lines in comments, please? :-(

March 1, 2013 - 5:04am
Heather Shanholtzer's picture

Hi Matthias,
Sorry about the formatting issue. I'm working with the developers to correct.

March 1, 2013 - 11:56am
Clarke Ching's picture

I like this Metaphore Mathias. I'm going to borrow it and use it when I can.

Your article is very timely for me.

March 1, 2013 - 11:12am
atomica's picture

Just finished reading the article. It could be better if it delivered what was promised. A how to. A system of accomplishing how to manage self organizing team.

Though the advice presented in this article is general and quite helpful to start a discussion, it  still require some real world that team leaders could connect to -- other than the analogy  of a bicycle ride. 

Some guide questions for future article - or a follow up.

What is a self organizing team?

Why is it important to handle them properly?

What critical aspects to watch out (success checklist) for the success of self organizing team in terms of milestones, status reporting, frequency of meeting, evaluation/ feedback of agile implementation (since you said it is new)

How to get it the wrong way?

What is the biggest objection with self organizing team.

My 2 cents.

April 1, 2013 - 12:10pm


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