Are leaders needed for self-organizing teams?

Last week, I explained my team evolution definitions including self-organizing teams.  So today I’ll focus on the questions similar to, “Are managers (executive, scrum master, functional manager, team lead, project manager, etc) needed for 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 — well, I just expect more from people.

 

  • Leading Individuals: When you have individuals, frequently leaders are spending quite a bit of time focused on: coordinating; building competencies (training); and building relationships/trust among people.
  • Leading Groups: When you have a group, frequently leaders are spending quite a bit of team focused on: providing a shared purpose for cooperation; building competencies (training); building relationships/trust; and removing silos (increasing the need for collaboration by going beyond cooperation). For example, changing product backlog items to full value and having developers pair (front and back end developers).
  • Leading Teams: When you have a team, frequently leaders are spending quite a bit of team focused on: celebrating collaboration; 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.
  • 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 also still require training a new competency  as they push themselves out of their comfort zone.  The key is now leaders no sharing ownership by educating, engaging and encouraging their teams to invest in themselves, each other and the delivery of value.

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 were overwhelming.  The appreciations up, down, and sideways were astounding.

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 uncharted new territory for me as a leader, which is both amazing and terrifying.

Do they need someone leading them every minute? Absolutely not.  In fact, if you are, you don’t 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’s 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, yet someone on the team takes on those responsibilities — they have a leader whether they’ve assigned 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” de facto lead.  If not having the title/role, helps, go for it.  But don’t pretend that leading is not happening, or that the role should never be needed.

Personally, when this question comes up the most is based on this scenario:  The team wants to evolve to self-organizing, but the leader doesn’t have the skills to help this happen.  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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