The agile concept of self-organising teams can be mistaken as allowing the people within a team to do whatever they want to do – because eventually they will self-organise into an effective group. If I was told to be part of a self-organising team, my first reaction might be a feeling of freedom.
I could do whatever I thought was the right thing, such as, come into work at 3am and leave around lunchtime or write all my documents in Latin (because that would be fun and precise – although I would need to seriously brush up on my high-school Latin – I can only remember ‘canis in mensa stat’).
I was trying to think of a list of things that I could do by myself and ran out of them very quickly – we rely on other people at work to get our jobs done. With the two (silly) examples above, my sense of freedom would place a burden on others – not many people would be happy to attend my 3am meetings and very few would be able to read my Latin documents.
Another misinterpretation of self-organising might be ‘without constraints’ – which sounds wonderful, and could end up with similar issues. Constraint can mean prevention or it can be a thing that helps to shape our thoughts and actions in useful ways.
Back to the concept of self-organising teams. Teams cannot work in complete isolation, even in a small company there are other people involved. Imagine running a sandwich shop. Our Customers are likely to buy sandwiches during lunchtime – so we have a constraint of peak sales likely between midday and 1:30pm. We can only afford a certain amount of counter space, staff and supplies – and each fresh sandwich takes a minimum time to prepare, wrap and conclude the sales transaction. We can think of the shop as having inputs of fresh sandwich ingredients and outputs of sandwiches to happy Customers. The way that the shop runs needs to consider the inputs and outputs and then come up with the best way to get flow happening.
Now we are very far away from the concept of freedom and without constraints – we are tied to the shop for the long hours of work to service Customers for 90 minutes a day (and a few sales before and after that if we are smart). And yet, many people think of freedom as running their own business – how can we resolve this seeming paradox?
Perhaps freedom comes from the serving of others and is enabled by our reliance on others and we need to consider this in our teamwork. An effective self-organising team cannot be a bunch of people doing random stuff and magically becoming organised. The group needs to consider the inputs to the team and the outputs expected from the team – as well as the inputs and outputs for all of the work within the team. By observing these inputs and outputs and the way the work flows, we can improve over time.
In the sandwich shop example, we can place the ingredients in consistent places and monitor them as they empty during the busy periods. We need to discuss our observations about the effectiveness of that layout and any processes for topping up the ingredients.
Only by working together to share observations and ideas for improvement will we see any changes.
There was a great lunch place near my office that changed hands a few years ago and changed from quick service into very slow service almost overnight. I persisted for a while, but it did not get any better and I always wondered why the old owners did a much better job and these ones were inefficient. Now that I am writing this post, I think that the people in the lunch place were too polite with each other and tried to share the work – there would be 3 people making my sandwich, when before there was only one – or 2 at the most if they were not busy. The new owners divided the work up so that one person would prepare the bread and another 2 prepare the other ingredients – but not like a production line and they would be working over each other and slowing each other down. I imagine that this would have been frustrating for them and perhaps they did not discuss these little frustrations and observations, so the opportunities for small improvements were missed. I stopped buying my lunch from that place and there is a completely different lunch place there now.
Perhaps it would be useful to rename the idea of self-organising teams because it causes a lot of confusion. I would like to see teams that practice continuous improvement aiming towards great flow and the creation of value. Teams that are observant of the flow of the work from start to delivery as well as within the team and considerate of the impacts to others within and outside of the team.
Considerate-Observant Teams – the freedom to create value… and recognition of our reliance on others in order to be free.