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Can You Be Agile Without Empowered & Self-Organizing Teams?

Can You Be Agile Without Empowered & Self-Organizing Teams?

Anthony Mersino

June 30, 2020

7:47 AM

Very few organizations have truly empowered individuals working on self-organizing teams, even those that claim to be agile. Is this possible? Can you be agile without empowerment and self-organization?

I don’t think so.

Empowered and self-organizing teams are foundational to Agile ways of working. Three of the 12 Agile Principles refer to this. Of course, you can completely ignore the Agile Values and Principles and still call yourself Agile…it’s just Agile in Name Only (A.I.N.O.). People do it all the time.

I think it is a problem. Let’s take a look at those Agile Principles and I’ll tell you why I think it is a problem.

Agile Principles Related to Empowered Self-Organizing Teams

The 12 Agile Principles are foundational in my opinion. While less popular than the four Agile Values that are often cited as the Agile Manifesto, I think they are more important than the Agile Values. They provide additional guidance on what it means to be agile.

You can find the 12 Principles Behind the Agile Manifesto at: https://agilemanifesto.org/principles.html

Though not numbered on the Agile Manifesto website, I sometimes find it helpful to number them as you can see in the diagram below. It makes it easier to work with them in the classroom.

12 Principles Behind the Agile Manifesto includes empowered self-organizing teams

At least three of these principles relate to empowered and self-organizing teams.

  • #5 – Build projects around motivated individuals.
    Give them the environment and support they need,
    and trust them to get the job done.
  • #11 – The best architectures, requirements, and designs
    emerge from self-organizing teams.
  • #12 – At regular intervals, the team reflects on how
    to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts
    its behavior accordingly.

Note that #12 doesn’t mention either empowered or self-organizing teams. But think about it, what would be the point of stating that the team should reflect and tune and adjust their behavior if they are not actually empowered to tune and adjust their behavior? Clearly the intent by the authors of the Agile Manifesto was for the team to make decisions about the team, and not to have it dictated by someone outside the team. The team should self-organize.

Agile Frameworks Support Self-Organizing Teams

Looking outside the Agile Principles, what about other agile approaches and frameworks? Scrum is the most popular agile framework with 75+% of people who claim to be agile using Scrum. Scrum is clear that the “development team” is a self-organizing team. Here are a few quotes from the Scrum Guide that provide clarity on this point:

“Development Teams are structured and empowered by the organization to organize and manage their own work. The resulting synergy optimizes the Development Team’s overall efficiency and effectiveness.”

“No one (not even the Scrum Master) tells the Development Team how to turn Product Backlog into Increments of potentially releasable functionality;”

— Scrum Guide (2017)

Disciplined Agile is another agile approach. The mantra in Disciplined Agile (DA) is that the teams choose their own way of working. The DA toolkit supports analysis of the context of the team and then provides the team with options. Why provide those options to the team if they are not going to allow the team to choose their way of working?

Can you call yourself Agile and ignore the Principles? No! Can you use Scrum or Disciplined Agile and not have empowered teams that organize and self-manage? Hell no!

So What? Why Do I Get so Frustrated about the Lack of Empowered and Self-Organizing Teams?

Please stop reading here if you don’t want to hear me rant.

Frankly I get both sad and angry when I hear stories about lack of empowerment in organizations. I hear it when I am teaching agile training classes and when working with clients to support agile transformation. Because the fact is, while the vast majority of people in technology would claim to use agile, they don’t really empower people.

  • They have department managers and project managers telling people what to do
  • They keep team members on a short leash and don’t expect or allow team members to solve their own problems
  • They rob employees of autonomy and the intrinsic motivation that goes with it.
  • They demean full grown adults and treat them as children; hovering over them to make sure they do their jobs.

It really came to a head in a recent training class. By all accounts, none of the participants from 10 different companies let teams self-organize. And at least half of them called themselves agile!

It got worse.

We talked about creating a culture for agile to thrive and looked at case studies about Buurtzog (from Reinventing Organizations) and Spotify (via the videos called Spotify Engineering Culture).

When we talk of self-organizing agile teams or the Teal organizations described by Fredric Laloux, I may as well have been describing a colony on Mars. Most students said “That would never work where I am”. They don’t even think it is possible. So why try?


Do You Really Think It Matters, Eddie?

The voice in my head is that of Chevy Chase in the role of Clark Griswold, quizzing his wife’s cousin Eddie about the risk of sledding. Clark thought Eddie had other more important things to worry about.

You can argue that we have more important things to worry about then self-organizing teams and perhaps you are right. Here is a short list of more important things I could worry about:

  • Ensuring clean drinking water and proper nutrition for everyone. Everyone.
  • Being smart and stay safe from COVID and advocating for proper healthcare for those who need it
  • Addressing climate change responsibly
  • Doing my part to reverse the effects of systemic racism. Educating myself by reading books like So You Want to Talk About Race.
  • Giving voice to people of color, women, those with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ community and others who are marginalized and denied the opportunities that are provided to educated white males (like me).

So yeah, I guess I would agree that in the grand scheme of things, empowering teams is not on the same level as these things. But frankly these issues are not completely unrelated.

If we are going to unlock and unleash the talents, inherent capabilities and greatness of every individual, we need to provide for basic security needs, remove systemic barriers and empower people to do their very best work.

End Rant.

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