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Cultivating self-organising teams

How we organise our companies and departments will make a big different to the results that we are getting. Self-organising teams are becoming increasingly popular, partly because of Scrum and other agile way of working, because it has proven to be a scalable and effective way to run our business. We are going to look at the five conditions that are needed to cultivate high performing self-organising teams. As a leader or a team coach it is necessary to know these five conditions to help the team achieve great results, increase efficiency and to become more motivated in the process.

In Lars Ramquist and Mats Ericsson’s book Manöverbarhet (Eng. Manoeuvrability), the authors are going into length about how to cultivate high performing self-organising teams. They argue that a self-organising team functions by the same principles as any self-organising system and that five condition are all present in high performing self-organising teams.

Understand the world they live in

The first condition is that a self-organising team need to understand the world they live in. They need to know how their industry and market function; what movements that exists and the other players that share the space. As a leader you need to spell out the facts; share the threats and possibilities. It is important that your team understand both the why and the background to the why.

This knowledge will ignite an energy within, an instinctive reaction of inherited behaviour patterns rooted in our survival instinct. The authors call this the survival of the self-image. Our self-image is based on who we consider ourselves to be and the world we live in is part of that. We naturally react to both threats and to possibilities and without that energy we will not even get started.

Know how to make a difference

Once we ignite this energy we need to channel it towards something. The team need a strategic direction that everyone in the team accept and work towards. The team need to understand how they can make a difference for the company, given the threats and opportunities that have been identified. This is a process for the team to find their what.

It is important that the team is involved in setting their own goals and direction to take ownership and responsibility for their success. This might take a bit of time but this is necessary to get the commitment from everyone and to create a direction that will propel the company forward.

Achieve results

Results are the team’s output and necessary to sustain a healthy team. Results can take many shapes and forms: do tasks on a to-do list, deliver a feature of a product, overcome technical issues etc. It is important that the team learn to work in complete cycles to create a better sense of achievement. Documenting their achievements and regular look back to celebrate their successes is also a good way to create closure.

This is one of the biggest contributions with the agile way of working; the small but frequent increments of continuous delivery. It is also a good way to build up the confidence of a new team or a team that has not been efficient in their work. By delivering results, you are reducing the stress from work in progress and enable the team to take on new challenges.

Treasure a wide range or perspectives

By now we have energy, a direction and a throughput of results. But this is not enough. We need to go from contributing individuals to an interdependent team. We need an inner process that can knit the group together. This inner process is created when the team foster a culture of respect, trust and interest for each other’s thoughts and ideas. It is in the sharing and listening to other’s ideas that the inner process comes alive and the team can truly self-organise.

This is also supported by the research of a group at the Center for Collective Intelligence at MIT. They have found that social competence and equal participation are two of the biggest contributing factors for high performance teams.

The team’s ability to listen to and understand everyone’s view is something that requires discipline. As a leader or coach for a self-organising team you can help the team by making sure everyone is heard and understood.

Cherish the feedback loop

Every living process need to feed itself. In a team this mean that we need to learn from our experiences and strive to do things better. We need to continue to grow as individuals and as a team. As a team we reflect on past experience, celebrate success and learn from our mistakes.

In Scrum they have adopted something called Retrospectives where the team get a chance to reflect on how things are going and what they can do better and more efficient.

Finally, there is no magic with how a high performing self-organising team work. They all need input from the world they live in, direction to make a difference and a constant output of results. Together with this they need an inner process of cross-fertilisation of ideas and a systematic way to becoming better at what they do. Pay attention to these five conditions and you will see high performing self-organising team maturing all around you.