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What is a Self-Organizing Team?


The Agile Manifesto includes 12 key principles that define what it means to “be Agile.” One of those principles states that “the best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.”

But what exactly is a self-organizing team? How do you create one? And why is having one so important to creating an Agile environment? Let’s take a look.

Defining the Self-Organizing Team

At the simplest level, a self-organizing team is one that does not depend on or wait for a manager to assign work. Instead, these teams find their own work and manage the associated responsibilities and timelines.

Of course, there’s more to self-organizing teams than simply finding and completing work. Self-organizing teams also take on the responsibility of choosing the most effective and efficient way to complete their work and regularly look for ways to improve through experimentation.

For this structure to work, self-organizing teams must have a high sense of ownership and responsibility. Equally as important, they need to communicate often and trust in the capabilities of everyone on the team.

Notably, while self-organizing teams don't require a manager to assign work, set deadlines, and so on, they do require a mentor who can help grow their skills.

How Self-Organizing Teams Work

Self-organizing teams might sound like an easy route to chaos, but when done correctly, that’s far from the case. There are several principles that guide self-organizing teams to help maintain order. Those principles include:

  • Collaboration and teamwork: When a team doesn’t have a manager pushing orders, it’s up to the individual members to communicate with one another and work together. As a result, a self-organizing team must embrace a highly collaborative style of working and operate as a true unit.
  • Competency: Members of a self-organizing team must exhibit strong confidence in their own capabilities and the capabilities of their team members. This competency is critical since team members cannot expect to receive clear direction from a manager at the start of each project.
  • Regular growth and improvement: As important as competency is to success, so too is a hunger for regular growth and improvement. Without a manager, team members must take it upon themselves to seek opportunities for growth and look for ways to improve what they’re doing.
  • Trust and respect: Trust and respect are key ingredients for all teams, and self-organizing teams are no exception. Team members need to trust in the skills of others and trust that everyone will get the job done as planned, as there is no manager holding everyone accountable. Additionally, team members must respect the opinions of others and work together to find compromises to differing views.
  • Motivation: Receiving a new assignment and completing it is one thing, going out to find work and setting your own timeline is quite another – and the latter requires a high level of motivation.
  • Continuity: Working as a self-organizing team is something of a balancing act. Finding the right skills, establishing high levels of trust, and ensuring motivation are key to success, particularly when there is no manager taking charge. This balancing act makes continuity critical for the team’s ongoing success.
  • Ownership and commitment: Finally, team members must exhibit a strong sense of ownership over their success and a commitment to all the previous principles.

How to Create a Self-Organizing Team

From finding the right mix of people to setting up that group for success, there’s a lot that goes into creating a self-organizing team. Ultimately, it comes down to three core steps:

  • Training: Proper training can help satisfy many of the principles that self-organizing teams require. Specifically, hard skills training can ensure competency and provide the necessary framework to conduct tests that lead to regular improvements. Meanwhile, soft skills training can help lay the groundwork for high levels of communication, collaboration, commitment, and confidence.
  • Coaching: Before becoming a true self-organizing team, groups need coaching. To provide this coaching, have a group start operating as a self-organizing team with a coach present every step of the way, offering guidance as needed. During this phase, the team will resemble a cross between a traditional team with a manager and a self-organizing team, as the coach should step in to provide guidance as needed. Ideally, the role of the coach should diminish over time as team members learn how to take ownership and begin to collaborate with and trust one another in a self-organizing way.
  • Mentoring: Once a team starts self-organizing, the journey has only just begun. Team members still require mentoring to grow their skills and maintain the balance of the team. This mentoring should also help with continuity by ensuring everyone grows together and remains motivated.

The Importance of Self-Organizing Teams in Agile

Aside from the fact that the Agile Manifesto tells us so, why are self-organizing teams so important to Agile? We can attribute the value of Agile self-organizing teams back to three core areas.

  • Increased efficiency: Agile self-organizing teams prove extremely efficient because they can spend less time on project management and more time on solving problems and completing work.
  • Continuous improvement: Continuous improvement is critical to both the Agile methodology and self-organizing teams.
  • Improved problem solving: Having a team without a manager eliminates the fear of asking questions and casts a wider net for surfacing ideas on how to solve problems. Together with the high levels of teamwork and collaboration that Agile self-organizing teams exhibit, this environment allows for ideas to get shared and iterated on faster, which leads to improved problem-solving capabilities.

Altogether, this increased efficiency, focus on continuous improvement, and improved problem-solving help Agile self-organizing teams focus their time on delivering a quality product that meets the end customer’s needs as quickly as possible – a core tenet of what it means to be Agile.