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Responsibility and Self-Organized Teams: Are We Doing It Wrong?

Self-organized teams agree to take care of themselves, in varying degrees. They likewise agree to share responsibility for all of the tasks that go into completing their project. However, in a post at his blog, agile coach John Yorke observes a tendency of self-organized teams to direct disproportionate energy toward the wrong tasks, or to neglect doing work if it does not seem important enough to the goals at hand.

Freedom to Meander

Yorke points to C. Northcote Parkinson’s “law of triviality,” which finds that people will spend more time discussing simple, trivial issues in lieu of the more important (and notably more complex) issues. In the case of self-organizing teams, Yorke has watched with frustration how many hours of discussion will go into arranging the digital kanban board and deciding which columns to add or remove—yet the team “will then declare a story writing activity unproductive if the quantity of stories written in an hour is below an arbitrary number,” even if valuable discussion was had. Teams need to be more mindful of how they manage their time in this respect.

Yorke goes on to describe three levels of self-organization responsibilities. First, there are primary tasks, the tasks like writing code that directly apply to achieving project goals. Next, there are secondary tasks, which are often identical to primary tasks except that no one feels specifically responsible for doing them. Then there are tertiary tasks, which include ancillary tasks like watering the plants and ordering more stationery. Only tasks perceived as primary will be tackled with urgency by self-organized teams. Other tasks will simply get done when they done, even if the tasks are more important than the team realizes.

Ultimately, bystander syndrome may be to blame for some of the misdirection of energy:

Bystander syndrome is a phenomenon of anthropology where the more people are responsible for something the less responsible the individual feels.  Sadly this syndrome is the reason that self-organization so often fails…

These minor annoyances are the start of the breakdown in your corporate society and the warning signs that self-organization has reached [its]limit.  To keep things running new roles will need to be created to make people explicitly responsible for these Tertiary tasks. In short you will no longer be self-organizing[;] someone will need to lend a discrete hand, to enable self-organization to continue where it really matters.

Yorke essentially believes that allowing unbridled self-organization at all times may be more freedom than the team even actually needs. Some barriers and ground rules help a team to focus better. For more thoughts, you can view the original post here:

About John Friscia

John Friscia is the Editor of Computer Aid's Accelerating IT Success. He began working for Computer Aid, Inc. in 2013 and continues to provide graphic design support for AITS. He graduated summa cum laude from Shippensburg University with a B.A. in English.

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