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Self-Organization versus Self-Management

Self-Organization versus Self-Management The two terms are regularly used interchangeably.


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Marty de Jonge

2 years ago | 5 min read

Road to Professional Agile Leadership

Are Scrum teams Self-organizing or Self-managing?

As a Change Agent, I often run into the misconception that self-organisation and self-management are one and the same thing. However, self-organisation and self-management are two concepts which, according to the literature, are essentially different from each other, but are regularly used interchangeably.

In practice, this can cause a lot of (speech) confusion and problems in management and cooperation.

Since Scrum is one of the most used frameworks in Agile environments and it specifically mentions that Scrum Teams are Self-Organizing, it is well worth to do a deep-dive and see if the literature supports this statement.

Scrum Teams are self-organizing and cross-functional. Self-organizing teams choose how best to accomplish their work, rather than being directed by others outside the team. Cross-functional teams have all competencies needed to accomplish the work without depending on others not part of the team. — Scrum Guide 2017

Hype?

In recent years Agile transitions, and with that Scrum, have become increasingly popular to apply in organisations. Reinforced by the fact that some of these transformations have not delivered the outcomes that were expected in advance, some even indicate that the whole concept of self-organising teams is just a hype.

However, the opposite is true. Self-management and self-organisation are two organisational principles that have existed for decades. A typical feature of both self-managed and self-organising teams is that the traditional separation between ‘thinking’ (by the managers) and ‘doing’ (by the employees) has been abolished: the team realises both operational and management tasks.

Not one standard

The fact that the terms are used interchangeably is not strange. There is no one standard for a self-managing and/or self-organising team and they are also given a different interpretation in other contexts. After all, teams in production are different in nature from teams in the medical care or logistics sectors, just as teams with mainly ICT developers are different from teams with merely Marketing or HR roles.

Despite these different interpretations, there are general characteristics to distinguish between these two concepts but bear with me. We will explain this later but first, we cover the basics.

The self-managing team

Of the two organisational principles, self-management is generally the most researched one.

In 2003 Saskia Tjepkema studied the different forms and definitions used by different authors. she analysed 40 definitions and used the general common elements of these to make the following definition of a self-managing team:

“A self-managing team is:
- A more or less permanent group of employees who work together on a daily basis, and as a team are responsible for a set of coherent activities necessary to deliver a clearly defined, recognisable product or service to an internal or external customer.
- The team is, to a certain extent, responsible for managing itself and the task it performs, based on a clear and common goal.
- In order to be able to do this, the team has access to relevant information, the necessary skills and tools (resources), and has the authority to make decisions independently with regard to the entire work process (e.g.: problem solving, process optimisation)”

Traditional vs. Self-directed vs. Self-organising teams

As a result of his research into the effectiveness, composition and management of teams, J. Richard Hackman makes a comparison based on the degree of autonomy the team has. In his book ‘leading teams’, he distinguishes three different types of teams:

Traditional, self-managing and self- designing/organising teams, self-governing (Hackman, The design of work teams, 1987, p. 334).
Traditional, self-managing and self- designing/organising teams, self-governing (Hackman, The design of work teams, 1987, p. 334).

Traditional (manager-led) teams: These teams shall be responsible for carrying out the tasks assigned to them. Management is responsible for:

  • Monitoring and controlling the results to be achieved
  • Structure and distribution of tasks
  • Shaping and monitoring frameworks of desired behavior
  • Composition of the team
  • Organising the context in which the work takes place (e.g.: remuneration, training & development, information, etc.)

Self-managing teams: These teams are themselves responsible for both the execution of the assigned tasks as well as:

  • Monitoring and controlling the results to be achieved
  • Structure and distribution of tasks
  • Shaping and monitoring frameworks of desired behavior

The management is still responsible for the composition of the teams and organising the context in which the work takes place.

Self-designing/organising teams: These teams bear the same responsibility as self-managing teams + the responsibility for:

  • Composition of the team

Self-governing teams: These teams bear the same responsibility as self-organising teams + the responsibility for:

  • Organising the context in which the work takes place remains the management’s responsibility.
  • setting their own overall direction

Autonomy

According to Hackman, organisations make their own choices regarding the degree of autonomy that teams have. Depending on the nature of the work, the organisation, the team members, etc., organisations can consciously choose degrees of autonomy:

  • The team decides independently
  • The team decides in consultation with management
  • The team gives advice
  • The team has no influence on the decision

This is not a static fact, because teams can grow in the degree of autonomy (and thus taking more responsibility) in time. So, In his view teams can grow from Manager lead, via self-managing, self-organising towards self-governing.

And he’s not the only one who sees autonomy as one of the most determining denominators for team involvement. In this paper (Self-Organizing Agile Teams: A Grounded Theory) by Rashina Hoda, the author also draws interesting conclusions on the topic of autonomy:

A self-organising team possesses autonomy when
(a) they are provided freedom by their senior management to manage and assume responsibility of their own tasks and
(b) when there is minimum interference from senior management in the teams’ day to day activities

Conclusion:

In essence, the Scrum guide describes the Scrum teams self-organization as:

Self-organizing teams choose how best to accomplish their work, rather than being directed by others outside the team. -Scrum guide 2017

This description corresponds with the described characteristics of a self-managed team.
The theory indicates, as an additional characterization of self-organization, that the team can also choose its own participants and composition, which is not reflected as so in the Scrum Guide description.

A self-governing team, on the other hand, is one step further according to the literature. Here not only does the team decide themselves on the composition of the team, but also the generic direction, the point on the horizon.
Although this is partly described the role description of a Product Owner, in the Scrum guide the responsibility for giving direction (in parenthesis) is attributed to the organization as a whole and not as the responsibility of the Scrum team.

Cancelling a Sprint: … This might occur if the company changes direction … — The Scrum Guide 2017

In addition, In both studies by Hackman and Hoda, I recognize the described characteristics of autonomy in the way the Scrum Team is described in the Scrum Guide.

This makes the term ‘self-organising’ within the Scrum Guide’s description of a Scrum team seem correct to me as the most balanced term. It’s not 100% conclusive, but, for me, it’s enough to be able to speak convincingly about self-organising teams.

Acknowledgements to Marcel Janssen, Saskia Tjepkema and www.agilefaqs.com

https://www.linkedin.com/in/martydejonge/

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Marty de Jonge

Agile program manager

As an agnostic change agent, I am constantly amazed at what happens in organizations and learn every day. Enthusiastic writer and always open for discussion.


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