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Note: although the question talks about programmers, I imagine it applies as well to many other professions where self-organization is suitable: scientists, visual designers, etc.

I remember from my psychology course a few illustrations showing three to ten years old children performing team projects together while staying self-organized. The projects could be something like building a Lego house or put toys in order.

When I was a child, I also remember being part of such projects involving five to twenty children: it just worked, magically, with any team members.

There are obviously children who were not team players and harmed the project, like an angry child who will try to destroy the Lego house or start building his own or throw the toys to create disorder. Despite this, roles were still assigned (and mostly accepted), the bad players were bet or thrown away by the team and the work was still done.

If I remember well, the goal of the psychology course was to show the social behavior of a human being, and the capacity of self-organization in a context of a project performed with other persons.

I observe different teams of programmers in different companies for five years, acting as a technical lead, a manager or a simple team member. While there are rare teams of talented developers who are self-organized, most are not:

  • Most, when not being directed, can't even take the simplest decisions like which task should be assigned to which team member.

    As a manager, explaining to the team that they have the freedom they maybe didn't have with a previous manager have no effect. They still expect to be micro-managed, and remain particularly passive otherwise.

  • Many teams have members who are plainly harmful (for instance a person who doesn't have required skills or who does nothing because of the lack of interest in the project), but the team prefers to talk behind the back of the bad player instead of actually doing something (either helping the person to get back to the project or kindly throwing the person away).

  • Some are not even teams, but a group of persons working individually on the same project. They don't know their coworkers; they can't tell the strong and weak points of each member; they won't ask for help but will remain on their own.

    In worst cases, this leads to disastrous situations like a constant blame of other members. “This is not my bug, I don't work on this part of the app.” “Why would Jeff change my code? It's his fault that this class is now a mess!” “I can't release on time, because I'm waiting for a web service from Emily, and she doesn't seam to hurry.”

  • Finally, a few teams lack roles assignment (both formal and informal). With children, roles are always assigned or self-assigned: Timmy is filtering Lego bricks by color, Jessica takes care of the garden and the flowers around the future house, while Alice and William are building the roof. They switch roles from time to time (because Timmy is bored filtering pieces and wants to play with the flowers, while Jessica finds in herself a deep passion for roofs), but at any moment, they know what is their role, and the roles of others.

    On the other hand, I had cases where nobody knew who was actually dealing with the database access layer or who was handling error messages in AJAX requests. The members were admitting that the situation was a mess, but had no idea what should be done to solve the issue, making it practically impossible to work.

Why kids are able to be self-organized, but encounter severe self-organization issues later in corporate environment? Is it:

  • The corporate environment itself?
  • The lack of motivation?
  • The habit of being watched by the management and being constantly micro-managed?
  • The fear of being accountable when taking responsibilities?

How to deal with it as a team manager?

  • @JoeStrazzere: Those are not hypothetical questions. My goal is to understand why self-organization fails so many times in order to better understand what should I do as a manager to improve the work in the concerned teams. – Arseni Mourzenko Feb 14 '15 at 19:16
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    Most teams of adults can work together to build a Lego house. Your problem is that organising a team takes time, and maybe the team members feel they need all the time to get their work done, and nobody wants to spend the time on organising. – gnasher729 Feb 14 '15 at 19:18
  • @JoeStrazzere: not my company—other companies. How many times? Not many; at the beginning of my career, I rather observed in order to learn more. In the last two years, I had six to eight attempts to shift teams to Agile way of working. Sometimes it works. But sometimes, I'm confronted to the fact that team members are too either passive/disinterested or afraid, and won't even take tasks they want from the backlog, expecting their manager to assign tasks to them. – Arseni Mourzenko Feb 14 '15 at 19:29
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    The difference with children is that they are in an equal opportunity (anyone can play any role) and equal responsibility (nobody is in charge) scenario, with no real goal other than to have fun. They don't need to be organised, they just all do their own thing. It's really not a useful comparison. – Jon Story Feb 14 '15 at 19:32
  • @JoeStrazzere: no, not at all, my comment is indeed confusing. What I wanted to say is that in the context of pushing the team to be Agile, one of the aspects was also to make them more self-organized. – Arseni Mourzenko Feb 14 '15 at 19:36
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I'm not sure I agree with your premise that many teams can't be self-organized. It's my experience that, while some groups talk about it, extremely few companies want real self-organized teams. Even fewer companies are willing to cede control to teams in order to achieve self-organization.

Why kids are able to be self-organized, but encounter severe self-organization issues later in corporate environment? Is it:

The corporate environment itself?

Yes. Some talk about it, but few corporate environments really want self-organized teams.

If you want self-organized teams, it must be part of the company culture. People must be hired and trained with this culture in mind. The company must reward behavior consistent with this goal, and discourage behavior that isn't consistent. The company must be willing to live with the ultimate results.

This seldom happens.

Your basic premise is significantly flawed, IMHO. Kids aren't all that good at being truly self-organized unless you don't really care about the outcome. Few companies fit that requirement.

Perhaps your definition of what "self-organized" means differs from mine, or differs from the companies you have studied.

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    +1 for "kids aren't all that good at being truly self-organized". I know that my five-year-old twins are not self-organized in any way a sentient being could recognize as such. – Stephan Kolassa Feb 14 '15 at 19:46
  • Kids today have fewer opportunities or the necessity to self-organize especially in the US when they have their parents driving them to all of their organized sports teams, music lessons, clubs, tutors and online gaming. – user8365 Feb 15 '15 at 14:26
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    +1 also for pointing out that kids don't have an outcome that matters. – thursdaysgeek Feb 17 '15 at 20:03
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    I'm not saying ALL kids can't be self-organized, but I do refer to my boy as "Captain Chaos." – Wesley Long May 11 '16 at 21:09
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    @JeffO - true, but if several kids on the team want different outcomes, they can still build the lego house with wheels and wings. They're not responsible to a manager who wants one specific solution. Or else they'll fight and tear down each others work -- just like adults. – thursdaysgeek May 11 '16 at 21:41
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People 'naturally' self-organize by discovering assertive, leading individuals. If you find a group of children getting into some truly inspired collective mischief, there won't be a socialist republic at work. There will be one or more ringleaders, and a gang of followers.

So, the concept of 'a self-organized team' is just so much consultant buzz-word. An Agile team isn't self-organized; it's an structured process with several kinds of leaders in which groups of people make decisions. Just like a legislature -- lots of people have a vote and can speak, but a few people control the ground rules.

Some few companies are smart enough to know that the most useful leaders of getting day-to-day work done are down at the leaves of the organization -- not at the top, and not at the middle. So they create structures that allow those people to shine forth and lead their colleagues. At the same time, managers in these companies have to be alert to notice and squelch bullies and other pathologies.

All the problem you describe come from managers who don't know where to step in and where to step out. Managers need to, on the one hand, shut up and listen to learn who is best positioned to work on what. They need to speak up, ask questions, and give direction when the people or circumstances are pointing to a muddle. Particular talented managers can do this 'invisibly'.

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To my mind the single biggest problem with self organized teams is that they don't work unless you have all outstanding performers and no real conflicts. More than 90% people working in any field are not top performers.

When you have problem employees, someone has to be authorized to deal with those problems. When you have conflicts between good emplyees, someone has to be able to resolve them. When you are missing the deadline, you need someone to take action. It is really easy to abdicate responsibility if no one person has it.

And as far as business, my clients would leave in droves if thought no one was driving the bus. The clients want a Point of Contact who has authority to make things happen if need be not to deal with not some nebulous self-organizing team.

Further, self-organizaing teams tend to mean that only the pushiest people get the best tasks. The most common place where you see sefl-organizating teams in the real world if the cliques that form in high school. If you have ever watched a peer group of teenagers make choices with no official leaders, you know the choices are often poor and the overall end goal is often power over others not getting the task done. Why would I want to work in a poisonous atmosphere like that? I wasn't in the popular group in high school and I certainly have no need to be in the popular group now.

And worse, it often means the people pick what they want to work on not what they are skilled at working on which can be an absolute disaster and at best means the project will take longer than it should. Businessses are not in business to provide you with new skill sets or toys to play with. They are in business to deliver the product in a reasonable time-frame.

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I'd like to expand on Joe Strazzere's answer. If companies want autonomous teams, they have to work to make it happen.

  • Teams are rewarded based on the over-all performance, but individuals are rewarded based on their contribution to the team which is decided by the team.
  • Teams get to determine their members. Not always 100% practical. A team needs a new member they need to be involved on finding the replacement. What company would allow them to hire someone outside the company when there is a sort of suitable candidate already on staff? Not many.
  • Teams must be allowed to fail and solve their own problems. Of course this can't go on forever, but no one is going to do what is necessary to get the job done if every time there is a problem, someone steps in and cleans up the mess. Once they hit an impasse and someone can hold out until the decision gets deferred to a manager outside the group, there's no incentive to cooperate.

When changes are made, things usually get worse/less efficient in the short-term. It takes guts to stick it out when deadlines are so near and the stakes are high. Maybe it's as simple as asking the team in the first place if they want to be self-organized?

Unfortunately, there is a stereo-type that programmers don't play well with others.

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