STL Agile Open Space 2016 – Self-organising teams

I spent Friday at the St Louis – Agile Open Space 2016.   [On Twitter see #stlopenspace ]

It was a fantastic day with a great group of friendly and enthusiastic people all eager to learn something new, I went along with a few of the other coaches from Asynchrony. All of us expecting something different from the event, being new to the area for me it was as much about meeting a few people as it was about learning, but it was such a good experience. And as it always seems to be the case, I learn a little and in doing so I discover how much more there is that I didn’t know that I didn’t know.  The sheer wealth of my ignorance grows daily, but I learn something knew and I share what I can, and hopefully it balances eventually.

Self-organising teams

Did you know Dr Seuss was in favour of self organising teams?

There were a number of topics and discussions that drew my attention but the first that I want to share was a discussion on shelf-organising teams. A topic I am always very keen to discuss. The topic was raised by a Scrum Master whose team was moving in this direction and so she was asking for advice and to discuss experiences. Both internally to the team and how this would work with the rest of the organization.

The conversation was free flowing and we covered all sorts of aspects of the concept, as you can see from the post-it summary the conversation touched on whether a self-organising team should have a hiring budget and should be empowered to hire their own team, what the role of a Scrum Master should be in this environment. Even a somewhat controversial discussion on whether the team should be able to choose it’s own metrics and forcasting style when they are ‘consumed’ outside of the team.

Can there really be self-organising teams

The first discussion was one of hierarchy, there was an ‘acceptance’ for lack of a better word- by some of the group, that there is an actual or implied hierarchy and that a team has a manager or the PO or the Scrum Master, or the Team Lead is “in-charge”  there was a variety of experiences and opinions on this. But we talked about what-if the team was truly self-organising, and if there was no hierarchy, could that and would that work. And how it could/would work.

I think we broadly agreed that there was no absolute need for hierarchy and a team could build a situation where there was shared responsibility and accountability (Yes I did manage to inject my favorite 5 dysfunctions of a team discussion to describe how you can build the layers of teamwork necessary to enable this to happen) I would say that we broadly agreed it was possible, but there remained a question of how practical or realistic this was in all cases. 

We generally agreed that the team most of all needed a common goal, they also needed to have a level of competency, self-motivation, the ability to collaborate, and to have trust and respect for each other. We also broadly agreed that continuity of teams was important – teams that stay together longer are generally better, not a universal truth but as relationships are built over time it can be damaging to break up a good team. 

Most people felt there were boundaries for how much empowerment a team could have in a pragmatic context.  Growing teams, difficult personalities, changing products/projects and changing needs which impact team sizes.  We talked about whether you could allow an organization to sort itself into teams and what the implications of this would be, especially in organizations where billing structures are based on team size or it is service driven. 

The conclusion we drew was that a team should not be limited in what they consider possible for improvement, nothing should be off the table. If they believe they are better growing or shrinking or working a 30 hour working week, then any and all are reasonable proposals that a self-organising team could make. But we work in commercial environments and often a larger structure, we do not live in a bubble and for pragmatic reasons we must accept that there will be some boundaries imposed by the organization or indeed by law. But we should be pushing those boundaries and if we are told ‘No’ to something we genuinely believe would improve the team we should push those boundaries and challenge, ask why, and why again.

The Role of the Scrum Master  
   

Does a Scrum Master or team coach fit in this context?  This was a fun one to discuss, if you accept that there is no hierarchy and a Scrum Master is simply a role on team equal to any other, they are just one more specialty skill that a team can organize, they may choose whether they want or need a dedicated SM or shared SM or even need one at all, the same applies for a coach.  However, there were some caveats here, a Scrum Master or Coach has a duality of purpose and whilst they are idealistically organized by the team, they also have an implied independent obligation to coach the team in to independence – and that probably includes independence from the Scrum Master. But again the choice is the team’s.  A good Scrum Master will encourage the team to push boundaries and challenge themselves rather than using the Scrum Master as a crutch.   We had a slight aside here where we discussed how a Coach or Scrum Master can grow emotionally attached to a team or teams and can find it difficult to detach themselves. 

But in a Scrum team that is moving towards self-organization the role of the Scrum Master is clearer, they need to turn their focus away from the team, to step back and enable the team more independence, and create an environment where the team embraces responsibility and accountability, they are not only empowered but are encouraged to explore it.  But at the same time the Scrum Master should turn their attention to the organization and protect the team, push for the team’s decisions to be respected and supported, coach the organization on the merits of empowering the team.  Again this should be a role that lessens as the organization becomes accustomed to a reversal of hierarchy and lessen further when the organization begins to feel the benefit of the team organising itself.
Summary

This was just a few highlights of just one discussion of the day, I managed to attend 6 or 7 discussions or presentations and I may get time to write up some more of my notes in the coming week, but I hope this gives a flavour of the content and of the openness and enthusiasm of the participants and the shared knowledge and experience that was in one place. Companies and individuals sharing ideas and advice.  

I thoroughly enjoyed my day and I’m looking forward to the next event.    

 

 

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