Introduction to the interviewee:
Peter Coesmans, is the director of Agile Business Consortium. He is a guide for organisations in their (sustainable) transition or transformationjourney. He has run (multi-organisational) programmes that "cannot be done", delivering sustainable outcomes. He’s experienced in multi-cultural, multi-national environments.
(Note: the interview is centered on the topic of self-organization.)
Problems in Self-organization Practice
Q1. Self-organization isn’t a new term. Why do you think is it getting increasingly popular?
Peter Coesmans: It is indeed from quite some time ago, and actually was the first way for organizing teams. Because currently, in IT and outside of IT, we get more wicked problems, more VUCA situations, and we need very adaptive ways of organizing. Letting go of Taylorian organizations, having small teams adding value for real customers, is (as was shown by research) a good way forward. Of course, the current popularity of Agile ways of working (that also promote self steering) helps. But self-organization, based for example on sociocracy, or on Semler (Semco style), was there quite some time ago.
In general, in the VUCA world, effectivity is much more important than efficiency. Self-organization can be very effective (when focused well), and cares less about efficiency. The most efficient way is do nothing (it costs nothing). But that is hardly effective when we are trying to deliver value for customers.
Q2. Based on your observation, what are the major problems in self-organization practice?
Peter Coesmans: Self-organization is something that is working for relatively small teams. If teams get larger (>8 ppl), a coordination mechanism is needed. This can still be self-organizing! You can see so for example in organizations like Spotify, or Thuiszorg (Netherlands).
Self-organizing teams can only exist if they have full access to all information. If they don’t have enough information to be self-organizing, it doesn’t work.
I have also witnessed organizations that were highly self-steering, having difficulties to react to severe problems. The self-organizing way to handle this is to mandate a smaller team to resolve this. This has been working, nevertheless the people in the organization did not feel so well about it (although it was their own choice), and quite some have left.
Self-organization can lead to self-indulgence, or to internal focus. Current research has shown that self-organization and adaptiveness require an external purpose. This should (for most organisations) be radical delivery of value for the customer. So you should know who your customer is and what he / she wants, you should be in constant contact.
Self-organization is not a goal, not a purpose. I also currently see many organizations moving towards self-organization, without a clear purpose, without an objective. Unfortunately, these transformations have a large chance of failing. Failing what? Exactly!
And self-organization is not easy, and does not happen because management decides it wants self steering (which seems obvious but many organizations currently are doing exactly that). Organizations “grow” into what they need to be in order to sustainably deliver customer value. You cannot implement self steering. You grow and learn, based on what you want to achieve.
About Self-organizing Teams
Q3. Self-organizing teams are both stable and dynamic; do you believe so?
Peter Coesmans: I do believe that organizations need to become more and more adaptive, so they have to be dynamic. In the VUCA world, this is more and more a requirement. If teams want to become self steering, they need to go through Tuckman’s phases (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing Adjourning). If you change a team, you sort of start from scratch. So the team needs to be stable, needs to be working together, needs to be in a joint room, needs to have one focus. Then it can take up challenge after challenge (customer value focused of course). Don’t split teams every time, or give teams too many “projects” so they loose focus on delivering customer value.
Q4. What principles should we follow in building self-organizing teams?
Peter Coesmans: In my opinion, you don’t “build a team”, like it’s Lego, like you just follow a process or instruction and then you get it. That’s just not how it works. You “help to grow” self-organizing teams. The teams learn what works for them and what doesn’t work for them. The team will be helped with new ideas, new experiences from other teams which they might adapt or adopt. This is not an engineering assignment; it’s a sociologists/psychologists job!
• If a team needs to have a focus on delivering customer value, the team needs to be cross functional, needs to be able to perform all work necessary to provide value for the customer. So no self steering teams of architects please, or programmers, or brick layers. People in self steering teams will have more of a T-profile: generalists with some specialism.
• Team size should not be too big, up to 10 people or so. If teams get larger, they will need more formal ways of communication which takes them away from delivering value.
• Teams should be able to define their way of working together (and not be told how). THEY are the professionals, and they can decide what works best for them.
• Teams should be able to define who or what they need in order to deliver, and then get that (within reason). If they need a sociologist to tackle a problem with changing people’s behavior to become more sustainable, that is what they are going to get.
Q5. In your eyes, what are the characteristics of a high-performing self-organizing team?
• The team cooperates towards a common (external) goal “delivering value for the customer”.
• The team does not need to do everything together but is very well capable of delegating tasks amongst each other. Tasks are delegated, but there is no SET hierarchy (hierarchy is fluid). Everyone is as important as the other one.
• The team members help each other to deliver, and are able to accept joint responsibility.
• The team is able to resolve setbacks and relational problems; it is also able to know when it is not up for the task.
• The team is able to communicate amongst itself in an open and transparent way, to improve its performance, to improve its coherence, to improve its output.
Q6. What are your tips for members in self-organizing teams? What should they pay attention to so as to maximize the benefits of self-organization and avoid the disadvantages?
Peter Coesmans: This one is very interesting! Benefits for the person or benefits for the organization? In my view, if it benefits the person it will probably benefit the organization (which is not always true but in most cases it is). So for a team member, this means: Be honest to yourself. Do you want to be part of this team? Are you committed to this team and to improving this team and yourself given what the objective of the team is? Do you also see the value of others being different from yourself that everyone has to bring something to the team? And do you recognize that teams have to grow and that establishing a relationship, any relationship, is an effort? Are you willing to put in the effort? And if it is not this team, there is probably another team where you would benefit more so the team will benefit more.
Are you willing and capable to learn, to improve yourself, and to help others in your team to improve themselves? Being able to give and receive feedback is of utmost importance in a good team (and should be one of the things teams should invest in). Do you feel free to speak up, to be yourself, to add value? If not, perhaps for you this is not the right team.
Teams should be able to deliver in a sustainable pace. There’s nothing wrong with some additional work, or other ways of stretching every now and then, to deliver on the purpose. If you have to stretch too much or too often, this is not sustainable for you, and therefore also not for the team. So in general, try being yourself, because that is most sustainable.
Culture and Leadership for Self-organization
Q7. According to the 13th State Of Agile annual report, organisational culture still matters. How can organizations establish cultural climate for self-organization?
Peter Coesmans: We cannot implement culture. The organizations I have helped on their journey towards more self steering teams had a good reason why they wanted it, linked to delivering customer value. Then, they embarked on a journey, involving ALL, to see what would be a next step towards delivering more customer value. The change is for the entire organization, and the organization itself has to learn what is their path. Sometimes you install pilots, sometimes you change structures, and sometimes you try new tools and techniques. ALWAYS you try and learn.
And if you don’t have a good reason for doing so, don’t! And if you feel the current culture will not allow you to, why bother? As it is said, “structure follows strategy”, and “culture has strategy for breakfast”. Culture is not for engineers, drawing nice process flows and hierarchies. Culture goes deep into psychology and sociology. Sometimes it changes rapidly, sometimes it changes slowly, but it never changes according to a plan.
Q8. To apply self-organization, how should leaders shift their mindset?
Peter Coesmans: You don’t “implement self-organization”, or “implement agile”. It’s a learning journey, for the entire organization.
When we were developing the first agile leaders training in 1997, this is the question we asked ourselves. And again, there is “no one size fits all”. Leadership within agile teams is dispersed; everyone is a leader, in some shape or form, in some role. Leadership is not something peope do, it is a social construct. The team decides it needs leadership and someone takes the burden.
For current leaders, it all depends on what they want to be. If they see their role as supporting teams in being the best they can be, and help them to avoid problems, and take some of the administrative burden so that the teams can be their best, nothing much might need to change.
Managers and leaders need to recognize that the only people that are actually delivering real customer value … are in the teams, the workforce. People who are not part of the workforce have no direct link to delivering customer value, so their reason for existence is only to support those who ARE delivering value in any way they can.
Self-organization in the Future
Q9. What’s your expectation about self-organization in the future?
Peter Coesmans: The world is becoming more VUCA, less predictable and more virtual. We are cooperating over boundaries of time and space. This will impact the way in which we cooperate. I am unsure how teams will develop in the future, when more and more people perhaps do not need physical nearness. Perhaps other things that now are important for self-organization will also change.
I am very positive that organizations in the future will be much smaller, much less Taylorian, much more adaptive, with fewer experts and more T profiles. Currently, self-organization is a way to do that. There might be other ways of doing it. We are changing. People are changing in the way they communicate, so that will also change the way in which we cooperate.