Misconceptions about Self-Organizing Teams

At a recent conference, I over-heard three managers talking about self-organizing teams.

“You can’t just turn people loose and let a team make all the decisions. They’ll mess things up. And with all these ScrumMasters, coaches, and self-organizing teams, sounds like I’m out of a job,” said one with resignation.

“This time boxing thing is great,” said another. “Put them in a room, turn up the heat, and they’ll perform,” said a second manager.

“Wow, this means I can move people around based on projects, and they’ll just form and self-organize. I can have rolling, ad hoc Scrum teams!” crowed a third.

Time to rectify some misconceptions.

# 1. Self-organizing teams are completely autonomous, self-managing, and don’t need managers.

# 2. All you need to do to form a self-organizing team is provide a goal and apply pressure.

#3. Since the team is self-organizing, they can accommodate moving people on and off the team easily.

Misconception: Self-organizing teams don’t need managers.

There’s a reason we use the term “self-organizing” rather than “self-organized” or “self-managed.” That’s because it’s a process and a characteristic, not something that is done once and for all. Self-organizing, from a social systems perspective only means that the team can create new approaches and adapt to meet new challenges in their environment.

Self-organizing Agile teams do have–bounded—authority to make their own commitments, organize and assign their own work. They craft appropriate strategies to accomplish their goals, and make decisions with (again bounded) economic and organizational impact.

But they are not out there on their own, disconnected from the organization. Self-organizing teams exist to produce a product or service that is valuable to the organization and its customers. They are accountable to make their progress visible, and work within financial boundaries. Self-organizing teams may also be self-managed, to one degree or another.

Managers must create the conditions that enable teams to thrive and continue to self-organize. Manager need to work across the organization to create a work system that enables teams to deliver value to customers and the organization. And managers need to work with the team to set appropriate boundaries and constraints. Managers still act as agents for the corporation. Therefore, they still must be involved where there are legal or fiduciary responsibilities.

Misconception: Time boxing forces any group to become a team. Put a group of people together and hand them a challenge and they’ll gel.

I wouldn’t bet on it, and neither should you. Teams do need a clear and compelling work goal. Without that, there’s no reason to form a team. They also need the technical skills required by the work and interpersonal skills to work as a team. They need resources such as tools and access to information and education. They need a connection to the larger organization.

The pressure cooker method of team formation will more likely burn people out than result in the productivity of a real team. Calling a group a team and turning up the heat, doesn’t make it so.

Time boxing is one of the structures than can help teams succeed by providing focus. Working in time boxes creates a natural rhythm of feedback and connection to the team’s purpose. But a time box and goal, in and of themselves, don’t create a team.

Misconception: Self-organizing agile teams should be able to accommodate frequent membership changes. After all, they’re agile aren’t they?

Teams need time to develop the strategies and trust that enables high performance. They need time to understand each others strengths and weaknesses, develop shared knowledge, and learn how to learn together.

When new people constantly arrive and leave, a group may never develop the shared approaches and shared knowledge that permit them to outperform a group of individuals.

Some teams—when they’ve had time to form and create a strong team culture—do become adept at adding new members. Even then, it’s best to limit the number of new members added at any given time. Changing more than 30% of team membership causes the team to reboot. Constant turnover prevents a team from truly forming.

As a manager, you can help by keeping teams together long enough to gel, and by protecting teams from the revolving door syndrome.


Self-organizing teams are not teams gone mad. Like all teams, they need a compelling goal, skills, information, and enough time to form and perform. And they still need managers to create a supportive context, set appropriate boundaries and constraints and connect the team to the organization.

14 thoughts on “Misconceptions about Self-Organizing Teams

  1. I suspect the comment about time pressure forming a team is actually true, but can be attributed to the same psychological mechanism as Stockholm Syndrome.

    Yes it brings a group of people closer together, but at what cost?

  2. Excellent post! Alas I am not sure if those 3 managers would be reading this anytime soon. Perhaps you should find them and shoot this page. Their teams would thank you !

    The biggest problem with current agile fest is that most people think that its a method to get rid of managers. Coupled with universal hatred for management, this has become a war cry. No wonder agile adoption is a tough nut to crack.

    I have 3 principles. Pretty much what you said
    – Manage surroundings, people get auto managed.
    – Make the system such that process can run indefinitely
    – Fight to keep the team together. Team building 101,
    teaches this and still it gets flouted. Makes my belief
    in dilbert principle stronger :p

  3. Aren’t’ all these misconceptions interesting (including the bunch you didn’t mention)?

    And what exactly is “self organizing”? Human Systems Dynamics teaches us that self organization flows out of simple rules and tools that groups use.

    One can wait for the thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters to accidentally create them, or use the Simple Rules & Tools of Great Teams from the McCarthy Technologies teamwork lab recorded over the past 15 years, to intentionally, repeatedly form self organizing teams.

    Take this foundation, add some Agile techniques, and lives are better.

    Cheers, Paul Reeves

  4. In reading about what you heard from those managers and thinking about what the Agile Values and Principles mean to me, what came to mind was “No good deed goes unpunished.” Not sure anything any of us do in trying to cimmunicate what Agile is about will ever prevent misuse in light of what drives people to adopt certain things in the first place. And that is often seeking ways to bolster the status quo.

  5. We’re not currently using Agile, but I definitely try to give my testing team the space and resources they need to self-organize, and more often than not it has paid off in spades.

  6. Fantastic and so true post. Self organizing teams is a very hard practice to adopt indeed. It needs a lot of effort by the team members as well as the team leader/scrumMaster/project maanager or whatever title he/she has. To be honest the team just need a leader to guide its members, solve problems and ispire them with actions and decisions. Old fashioned project managers like these three imaginary (I hope) presented in the post do not belong in agile 🙂

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