Are leaders needed for self-organizing teams?

Last week, I explained my definitions especially for self-organizing teams.  So today, I’ll focus on the questions similar to “Are managers (scrum master, functional manager, team lead, project manager, etc) needed with self-organizing teams?”.  First, let me highlight that I’m not getting into the discussion of manager vs leader.  A manager should be a leader.  Bad managers do not represent manager roles.  And labeling all managers as bad – while, I just expect more from people.









  • Leading Individuals: When you have individuals, frequently leaders are spending quite a bit of time focused on: building competencies (training) and building relationships/trust.
  • Leading Groups: When you have a group, frequently leaders are spending quite a bit of team focused on: building competencies (training), building relationships/trust, and removing silos – increasing the need for collaboration. For example, changing product backlog items to full value and having developers pair (front and back end).
  • Leading Teams: When you have a team, frequently leaders are spending quite a bit of team focused on: building confidence (mentoring), building relationships/trust, and removing single points of failure (including themselves) to begin to promote shared ownership. For example, cross functional generalizing specialist training on an area that traditionally only one or two individuals owned by valuing growth of others.
  • Leading Self-Organizing Teams: When you have a self-organizing team, frequently leaders have nothing to do.  Kidding.  That’s ridiculous.  However, the role has changed.  Earlier, training and mentoring (with content knowledge) was common.  Now, coaching and facilitating should be common.  Earlier, you helped with competencies and confidence, now you support (sponsor/coach/facilitate) with continuing to elevate their knowledge, results, skills and teamwork. That may still require a new competency or support as they push themselves out of their comfort zone.  The key here is that leaders are not taking back ownership but educating and encouraging their team to go even further.

Honestly, when I reflect back on helping various teams get to self-organizing:  Individuals and Groups were the easiest (that is once I learned training and mentoring skills).  Initially, teams were difficult because I had to personally learn new skills that would minimize and/or prevent me disempowering the team.  Yet, self-organizing teams are by far the most rewarding and challenging for me as a leader.  The results blew me away.  The pride and team satisfaction blew me away.  The appreciations up, down, and sideways blew me away.  So what was challenging:  I had to inspect and adapt and face the unknown with them as the leader.  I didn’t know what challenge they were going to face next – how would i support them without taking ownership.  Every self-organizing team I lead means unchartered new territory for me as a leader – both amazing and terrifying.

Do they need someone leading them every minute? Absolutely not.  In fact, if you are – you do not have a self-organizing team.  Would they be fine without a leader? Simply, this would never happen…because someone would fill that role whether it is assigned or not.  Is that a bad thing, not necessarily but it can lead to issues within the team that pushes them backwards in their journey if the person filling the role of leader doesn’t have skills as a leader.  For example, a team that declares they don’t need a ScrumMaster – someone on the team does the responsibilities – they have a leader whether they have the role or not.  But Tricia, sometimes multiple people do that — in my experience, it starts that way but quickly one person becomes the “not assigned” defacto lead.  If not having the title/role, helps, go for it.  But don’t pretend that leading is not happing hence the role should never be needed.

Personally, when this question comes up the most is based on this scenario:  The team wants to progress to self-organizing but the leader doesn’t have the skills to help this happen (sometimes by stopping doing certain things as well as what they should start doing).  The easy reactive pendulum swing answer is “get rid of the manager”.  Instead, I want to be a part of an organization that is investing in helping people learn the skills needed to lead beyond teams…because then our customers win, our organizations win, our teams win and individuals win.  That sounds like a much better long term solution to me.

What have you experienced leading self-organizing teams?

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