So --- What Exactly is "Self-Organized"?

One of the fundamental concepts in the context of Agile and Scrum is the self-organizing team. Despite the fact, that this concept is rooted so deep in the core, the perception of self-organization is controversial - at least in an organizational environment.

Self-Organization and Anarchy

I do often hear that self-organization does not work, since anarchy will rise if no individual controlls the actions of a group. Obviously I am not the only one who hears such concerns frequently. You can read about some frequent misconceptions about self-organizing teams here.

Indeed parts of the definition of self-organization sound very much like anarchy. But there are two important points to be made here:

  1. Anarchy is not under all circumstances a bad thing by definition.
  2. The main reason for the negative reception of the term anarchy in this context does not come from the definition of anarchy, but from the fact, that "unmanaged systems can behave in a way that the stakeholders don't value".

We are getting closer to the core question, which - to me - is: "If self-organization is good and similar to anarchy and anarchy might behave in a way I cannot accept. What are the borders I have to draw to get a properly working overall system? How do I work with self-organized teams?"

The Theory Behind Self-Organization

Let's dive a bit into the theory of self-organization. The concept of self-organization stems from systems theory. In systems theory (complex) systems and their interactions are observed and described. A special case of complex systems are complex adaptive systems (CAS).

A complex adaptive system is a system that is:

  1. complex because of its multiple, diverse connected elements
  2. adaptive because it is able to learn from experience and react to circumstances

This matches well with the definition of self-organization of Scott Barton where "self-organization [is a] process by which structure or pattern emerges in an open system without specifications from the outside environment". (Barton, S. "Chaos, self-organization and psychology" (pp. 111-138). San Diego, CA: Academic Press)

Some Facts About Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS)

Therefore if we want to learn about the term self-organization it pays off to have a look into the literature and research in the field of systems theory and complex adaptive systems. A valuable source in this hindsight is Roy J. Eidelsons paper "Complex Adaptive Systems in the Behavioural and Social Sciences".

I will just quote some parts of this paper in the following:
"... some complex systems may not exist in a particular form because the parts simply cannot be assembled that way." (p. 47)
What we might learn from this is, that if you try to construct a complex adaptive system (or self-organizing team) from the outside, chances are, that your system (team) is non-viable. It therefore will not behave like a team for a long time. If you intervene in a living team - you might kill it.
"The course of self-organization in complex adaptive systems is often influenced by positive feedback." (p. 49)
To me, this means that it is important to detect damaging positive feedback loops (e.g. increasing distrust) and it might be a chance to find positive feedback loops (e.g. fast feedback) the team benefits from.
"A common instance of positive feedback is the competency trap [where] successful learning drives an individual, organization or society to a stable but suboptimal solution." (p. 49)
One should look out to avoid the competency trap, which is getting stuck at a local optimum where much better global optimums are possible but not reachable by the team without influence from the outside.
"It should be kept in mind, however, that successful self-organization for a particular system as a whole can produce undesireable consequences for some of its individual parts and for other CAS." (p. 49)
Self-organized teams might behave in a harmful way. Thus we have to set boundaries to avoid a self-organizing team to damage other teams or systems (by intent or accident). Furthermore we should be careful that no individuals in a team become aggrieved.

It might be tempting idea to try to find a "stable" state for a team. But stability might not be the best thing for a team. J A. Scott Kelso writes about the human brain (one example of a CAS) in  "Dynamic patterns: The self-organization of brain and behaviour":
"By living near criticality, the brain is able to anticipate the future, not simply react to the present."
Thus, a state that looks close to chaos  (from the outside) might be a perfectly reasonable way for a CAS to exist and adapt.


To me the key learnings from this in working with self-organizing teams are the following:
  1. Ideally seek the right positive feedback mechanisms. Look out for side effects and alignment with the organizations goals/vision/mission.
  2. Set out your expectations clearly and let the self-organizing team find solutions to fulfil them. Communicate clearly the responsibility of the self-organizing team and ask what they need to take this responsibility.
  3. Think hardly about what boundaries are needed to avoid damage that could possible done by a self-organizing system.
  4. Try to identify competency traps and find ways out of them (use items 1 and 2 to do that)
Mary Poppendieck summarizes most of this points in Implementing Lean Software Development: "Respecting people means that teams are given general plans and reasonable goals and are trusted to self-organize to meet the goals."

Even easier stated by Jurgen Appelo: "Change the Environment, Not the People".

Update: Uploaded slides from a presentation at Agile Monday Nuremberg.