When self-organization does NOT work: teamwork hints

Scrum is based on “Empower the Team” Lean principle that prescribes self-organization. This means that regardless of age and experience team members are equal and serve as managers to one another. There is strong rationale behind: people that do the work are the best to manage it as they own responsibility of results and know best how to handle it.

Daily stand-up or daily SCRUM is a team tool to reflect on changing reality and adapt accordingly.

I’d like to point out some cases when self-organization does not work as should and help those teams out to boost their productivity.

Let us discover some sick stand-up/self-organization symptoms first…

1. Refraining from exposing problems (ignorance of reality):

  • Task takes longer than planned and reasons are not clear to everyone (or something holds back people from raising problems);
  • Task is blocked and impediment is not exposed/raised (this also may indicate some other problem with task that is not comfortable to raise);
  • It’s just a way it is (yes we all know that we’ve planned 4 hours for that task, but as usual it takes us 2,3,5,… times longer or this guy always messes things up, we can do nothing, etc…);
  • Team does not reflect during a day on changing reality (just in stand-ups), leading to impediments piling up and being addressed late, so that they mask something else;
  • Etc…;

2. Intolerance to critical feedback:

  • Team member pushes back heavily when someone tries to rise a problem related to his/her task;
  • Raising problems considered as de-motivating and team silently prefer to hide them until it’s too late;
  • Team members prefer to stay “nice” to each other rather than constructively criticize their plan in order to adapt it daily;
  • Etc…;

Those two are inter-related. As a team member one will hold back from giving critical feedback if receives push back from his/her peer leading to confrontation and poor->no self-organization…

Scrum Masters, look around. Don’t you observe those symptoms during your stand-ups and/or during daily work?

If yes then…

Try out following cures ….

  • Talk to push-backers one on one, try to understand what makes them do so? It could be personal issues with team members, lack of positive feedback or self-esteem, or other personal or inter-personal problem(s). It also could be absence of trust (readiness to look vulnerable to the team).
  • Explain that feedback is not oriented towards person, rather towards team (exposes problem) as there are no personal problems in a team, since problem causes wastes, further slowness, incompleteness and later sprint failure of entire team.
  • Focus person on constructiveness rather de-structiveness when exposing problem and coach on asking why 5 times, usually it helps to come up with adequate counter measures to remove root cause of the problem;
  • Educate other team members that raising questions is crucial and needed, but highlight issues and offer them to try out different ways to do so (there may be personal barriers for push-backers, so more “gentle” way may be less stressful while lead to the same result, e.g. instead of asking “Why you did not finish this task so far”?, try “What holds you back from completing this task”?
  • Cultivate more solution oriented then problem stating approach (as solution is vector, while problem is scalar);
  • Talk to entire team that problems are normal and ignoring them just postpones failure. So they require courage to face and team spirit to overcome, that makes difference between team and group of people. Exposing problem does not mean it shall become energy-drainer and de-motivator, rather it’s in-time red flag that shall re-focus team on next right thing to do;
  • If conflict is unavoidable and your peers do not go with “exposing problems approach”, steer it, but not let pile it up (nice article on conflict avoidance here);
  • Launch team storming to “shorten the distance” between team members, so that exposing problems is more constructive and easy (see: “Teamleads, “Storming”, Self-organization and Entropy”)
  • Propose and drive team branding activity to help them find out shared values and motivators (see: “Team DNA: how to Brand up your team”);

To summarize, work both ways with ones who raise (also including you if you are in SM role) and with ones who push back to make raising problems comfortable and easy.

Good Luck!

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