Self-managed or self-organised teams is the premise for any Agile framework or organisation. But what does that mean? The meaning varies from organisation to organisation, and from person to person, but there is a standard definition for it. Let’s look into it!

Late J. Richard Hackman, Harvard psychology professor and one of the leading experts in group psychology, who spent over fifty year to determine what are the qualities of high-performing teams and group dynamics, tackled the concept of self-managing teams in his famous book Leading Teams. Setting the Stage for Great Performances, 2002.

According to Hickman, deciding on the limits of authority of the team is essential and should be explicitly done by the management. It shouldn’t allow ambiguity, as it would create great confusion and a lot of impediments to high performance.

When deciding on the extent of a team’s authority, the management should make sure they transparently align with the team who will do each of the below work functions:

  1.  Work execution: refers to who will do the work in itself (in product development, everyone involved in creating the product: building designs, writing code, writing specs, documentation, communication with stakeholders, etc.).
  2. Monitoring and managing the work process: refers to continuous learning – a decision needs to be made about who is monitoring the team’s performance and making sure the team is continuously improving their processes and is continuously learning.
  3. Design the team and arrange for support from the organisation: the third function includes designing the team in itself (deciding who should be in the team), deciding who works on what, who creates team norms of conduct, and who ensures that the team has all the resources and tools necessary to perform their tasks.
  4. Set direction for the team: the final function is to set the direction or strategy of the team; who is the responsible unit for vision or goal setting for the entire team?

Hickman created The Authority Matrix (recreated here), which shows four level of increasing self-management, considering who has the authority for the above functions:

 

  1. Manager-lead teams:
    • managers manage, workers work, and the two functions are kept as separate as possible” (excerpt from the book)
    • have the only authority to execute the task given to them
    • managers monitor and manage the process and progress, decide on the team design and its context, and set the direction for the teams
    • waterfall environments, traditional management, scientific management are a few examples of organisational models where teams are just meant to do the work and have absolutely no decision power.
  2. Self-managing teams:
    • have authority on the execution of the tasks given to them
    • monitor their progress and can adapt the process as they deem fit
    • are seen in newer companies, service providers, construction companies
    • are one step closer to Agile working environments, but not quite there yet.
  3. Self-designing teams:
    • have full authority on executing their task
    • are responsible for monitoring their performance and progress and adjust their processes
    • have the power to decide on the design of their team, working norms, resources and tools needed to complete their tasks
    • management sets the direction and get out of their way
    • examples include startups, management task forces.
  4. Self-governing teams: 
    • have full responsibility on their direction, design, context, progress, process and execution
    • examples are smaller startups, legislative bodies, corporate boards of directors, advisory councils of community service agencies, worker cooperatives, professional partnerships.

Most Agile environments oscillate between self-managing teams and self-designing teams, with an ideal towards self-designing teams. When the teams in this category are well-designed and have good leaders, they can become high-performing teams, self-correcting and capitalizing on their collective intelligence, building their people. The main condition is that their level of authority is clearly agreed on with the management and understood by the entire team.

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