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Where Self-Organizing Teams Fall in the Team Authority Spectrum

“Self-organizing” has a nice ring to it, so people feel empowered to say they are part of self-organizing teams. Is the term fully accurate to what goes on in scrum teams though? In a post for Mountain Goat Software, Mike Cohn describes different types of authority and explains where “self-organizing” fits into that spectrum.

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Cohn derives four types of authority pertaining to teams from Harvard professor Richard Hackman:

  • Manager-led
  • Self-managing
  • Self-designing
  • Self-governing

Manager-led teams only have the authority to do the work they are given (in other words—no authority). Self-managing teams have the authority to choose what work processes they use to complete work (whether it is agile or something else). Self-designing teams have the authority to control who is on the team, adding or removing members. And self-governing teams have the ability to set or change the purpose of the team’s existence; if they want to start building baby cribs, then that will become the team purpose.

Cohn identifies “self-managing” teams as being analogous with “self-organizing” teams. But between the two terms, Cohn prefers “self-organizing.” Here is his reasoning:

First, that is how it was described in the first published article on Scrum, the oldest agile framework. The authors of that paper, Takeuchi and Nonaka, considered self-organization to be one of the six characteristics needed to create a “fast flexible process.”

Second, I find the origins of the term self-organizing in chaos theory useful in thinking about team behavior. The flocking of birds in flight is self-organizing behavior. So is an ant colony, a beehive, or the pattern of cars on a highway. These examples of self-organization in nature often provide useful, illustrative examples for what self-organizing may mean to an agile team.

Honestly, it seems the difference is largely philosophical and irrelevant. But it is still amusing to ponder. You can view the original post here: https://www.mountaingoatsoftware.com/blog/two-types-of-authority-leaders-must-give-to-self-organizing-teams

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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