Saturday, March 13, 2010

Agile is Self-Organization and Self-Discipline

Agile teams are self-organized teams that work in an environment that has certain constraints to achieve certain goals. A self-organized team lacks a central authority. Instead, members self-organize and lead themselves to achieve the goals.

To understand how Self-Organization works, we can start reading about "Complex Adaptive Systems". In complex adaptive systems, the solution emerges. The term "emergence" means that "Rather than being planned or controlled the agents in the system interact in apparently random ways. From all these interactions patterns emerge which informs the behavior of the agents within the system and the behavior of the system itself." Complex Adaptive Systems accurately describe a software development ecosystems. Members in this ecosystem usually take every day decisions that impact the final product and they interact with other members to do that.

Self-Organization doesn’t mean anarchy or sloppiness. On the contrary, Agile self-organized teams are very disciplined. This discipline is the one that is borne because of the high standards of the group and because no one wants to disappoint their peers and not because of rigid orders of a manager.

Self-organization needs to happen within the limits set by the organization and guided by leaders. Managers still need to set the direction, the constraints and the guidelines that the team needs to follow. It is also important to have leaders within the team to coach and spread the good practices. 


Which are the reasons that justify having this structure instead of a more traditional command and control structure. This is a small list of those:

Self Organized teams take better decisions: The fifth lean principle in the Poppendieck's "Lean Software Development" book is Empower the team. Empowered and educated employees guided by a leader are motivated employees that can take better decisions that their managers. Scientific Management, as stated by Taylor, was designed with another type of employee in mind.. very different from the software engineer. In today, knowledge-based organizations, delegating power down (empowering) has proven to be much more effective because the engineers working at the front line have much better information and because they have the knowledge to take those decisions. 

Individuals in a Self-Organized team are motivated: Motivation comes from participation. Being part of the solution… Something to keep in mind when working with knowledge-based workers is they are highly educated people. Therefore, motivation not only comes from the salary or the position, but also by being able to do something that satisfies them.  

Self-Organization improves trust and commitment: Knowledge-based organizations are totally dependent on the commitment and ideas of their employees. Knowledge is a resource locked in the human mind. As the Novel laureate economist  Friedrich Hayek has argued, "Practically every individual... possesses unique information" that can be put to use only "with his active cooperation". 

Self-Organization enables innovation: Trust and commitment makes people go beyond their call of duty by sharing their knowledge and applying their creativity. The synergy created in the interaction from individuals with this attitudes is one of the key enablers to build innovation. Contrast this to other structures were employees are just told what to do. In this case, what the person can contributed is much more bounded. In Self-Organized groups, innovations thrives.

The best solutions emerge from self-organized teams: last but not least, let’s mention one of the principles in the Agile Manifesto. I completely agree. A self-organized solution contains a mix of different backgrounds on it. There is no comparison between a solution thought by just one person and one reached by a group that went through different options and agreed on the best one.

Managers to Leaders

If members are not told what to do, you probably would wonder what happens with manager. There is a shift in the way management is performed. Managers become leaders in Agile. They don't tell its employees what to do. They fix the goals and set up the constraints to get there. And they lead by example. Lissa Adkins states in her article "The Manager Role's in Agile" that "agile managers coach, inspire, and lead teams more than they measure and manage them."

Wait a minute.. Does this mean managers don’t take decisions anymore? I had this doubt for a lot of time, until I read Highsmith “Agile Project Management” book. The answer is “yes, they still need to take some decisions”. Even more. The group expects the leader to take some decisions. I’ve seen it many times. When the leader is respected, there are a lot of people that even prefers the leader to take the decision for them. But to reach this point, there should be respect. Lots of it.

I just read the paper “Fair Process: Managing in the Knowledge Economy” by Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne. This paper explains very clearly how people respect and even commit to decisions they have not taken if and only if the process is “fair”. A fair process is transparent and known before the decision is taken and it allows for the people affected to at least expressing their points of views. The process is as important as the outcome. 


Self-Organization is one of the tenets of Agile. It improves trust, motivation, commitment and most of all, it improves the quality of the produced work. Managers and organizations used to old command and control structures need to change their beliefs and their culture. Agile leaders need to understand their new role, which is by no means easier than before.


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