One of the key concepts that the new-to-Agile learn is
that teams self-organize. Team members decide together
who will do what when. Concentrating such decision-making
in the hands of the people closest to the work increases
The reality in many organizations is that inertia and
culture leave team members little wiggle room for such
decisions. By contrast, in other companies
self-organization works beautifully. A small subset of
them have empowered existing teams to vet and even veto
However, what seems to be almost universal is the process
by which a team comes together in the first place. And in
that process, prospective members rarely have a say.
As part of an Agile Makeover a few months ago, a program
team of almost 20 was going to separate into three teams
(still working with a single product owner). The VP had
come up with a suggested assignment structure, but agreed
to let the people self-select into the three teams. I
designed and facilitated that meeting's process.
Since the area of focus for each of the three teams was
predetermined, the first round focused on skill
distribution. After 15 minutes of people nervously moving
stickies around, it yielded a team of ten, two teams of
two, and a few people who didn't know where to go. Next
round, the testers were much more vocal; keen to help,
each tester assigned herself to two or three teams. We
were clearly at an impasse.
To break the tension during that round's debrief, one guy
said, laughing, “Why don't we just pick the people we
want to work with, and then decide which areas those
teams will work on?” To which I answered, “Go ahead!
Reorganize them any way you see fit.” Now people were
engaged! They were drawing boundaries around the stickies, having intense
conversations, and looking at the big picture. Within ten
minutes we had wonderful, balanced teams of 5-6 people
each. They chose team names, and later that day chose new
desk locations so they could sit together. We agreed to
revisit team structure after the next release milestone,
two months later.
Soon thereafter, another large team in the same office
followed suit and self-selected into four teams. Their
arrangement didn't work so well, and within a few weeks
they reorganized themselves again, even picking different
team leads in the process. The new structure seemed to
This happened in a company long used to individuals
working on their own tasks, not so much in teams.
Allowing self-selection was a strong signal of trust from
local management. It was also a demonstration of their
investment in the Agile makeover.
At Agile2014, a coach and a manager from a household-name
company in New Zealand described their experience with 100 people self-selecting into 12 teams. They made
an interesting observation, which echoed mine: Even
though people care about the company and have interest in
certain work areas, they'll ultimately pick teammates
based on relationships. When they do that, I think, they
are more likely to give teamwork a chance, which
increases the likelihood of the team's survival and
Some changes take a generation. The change toward Agile
values, beliefs, and principles hasn't crossed the
mid-point yet. Team self-selection is one of the most
challenging peaks to conquer, but I believe we are
getting there, and we will soon hear more examples and
stories of that.
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