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Agile Project Management: Self Organising Teams

Paul Naybour Paul Naybour

Published: 22nd September 2014

Someone was telling me recently about some new fitted wardrobes that had just been installed in their home (bear with me). They had been made by an excellent carpenter and the standard of joinery could not be faulted. Nevertheless there was a problem. The carpenter had decided it would be a good idea to add some shelves to one of the cupboards as they “might be useful”. The client, on the other hand, had lots of clothes and wanted maximum hanging space; she didn’t need extra shelves so asked the carpenter to remove them. He was not happy that his “good” idea had been rejected and that he had to put in extra work un-doing it. But then neither was the client happy as something she had not asked for had been installed without consulting her.

This situation reminded me of one of the problems with Agile project management (thanks for bearing with me). Ordinarily I am neither a fan nor an opponent of Agile – it very much depends what the project is as to whether it is the best approach to take. I have worked on many large projects where we have combined Agile and traditional approaches very successfully. But the story of the fitted wardrobes reminded me of one particular Agile principle that has never, in my experience, worked well and remains a challenge for many Agile environments, and that is “self-organising teams”.

Certainly many teams are quite happy to “self-organise” and will productively get on with the task in hand without needing direction from the project manager or the client or other stakeholders. But that is one of the problems with agile projects, just exactly how much leading does a self-organising team need?

A self-organising team can be influenced and guided by a manager without the traditional controlling style of management but it is a difficult balance to achieve allowing the team some measure of creativity to become more productive. Some teams will try and sort out issues themselves and if they come up with a good idea they will probably implement it – after all they understand their own technical area very well and they know what works well. You can see the problem with this – it’s like the shelves in the wardrobe when the client wanted hanging space. What can seem like a good idea in theory may not be in practise.

Other environments never allow the team to be truly self-organising so never benefit from the creativity and productivity that might result. Success with self-organising teams in an agile environment is about finding that balance, which means the team needs (and takes) direction but are also able to be creative – but only when it adds benefit for the client/stakeholder.