September 14, 2023
9 min read

Self-Organizing Teams in Scrum: What, Why, Challenges, & Best Practices

The concept of self-organizing teams in Scrum is complex and brings in many challenges for new adopters stepping in without proper training. Let's discuss this in detail and finalize a few best practices for self-organizing teams.
Anton Versal
Anton Versal
Let's learn about self-organization in Scrum teams

Many consider Scrum a magical process that can solve all project-related issues and streamline complex project management. However, new adopters should know that Scrum is more than just changing the process. Its success is highly dependent on changing the mindset. One key aspect of it is making the team self-organized.

Traditional project management methodologies make team members follow the instructions, deadlines, and stick to the boss's plan. In contrast, Scrum makes the team its own boss and empowers them to take decision-making into their own hands. All that matters to the team is to ensure the timely delivery of sprint goals and satisfy the stakeholders. So, let's talk deeply about self-organizing Scrum teams in this article and cover their challenges and best practices.

What Self-Organizing Truly Means in Scrum?

A self-organizing team is a team that takes its own decisions on how to manage and complete work without the involvement of the higher authority. The team manages and organizes the work on its own and decides how to best accomplish its work.

Here's what we get about self-organizing or self-managing teams from Scrum Guide:

  • "Scrum Teams are cross-functional, meaning the members have all the skills necessary to create value for each sprint. They are also self-managing, meaning they internally decide who does what, when, and how."
  • "A Scrum Team is expected to adapt the moment it learns anything new through inspection."
  • "The Developers can select whatever structure and techniques they want, as long as their Daily Scrum focuses on progress toward the Sprint Goal and produces an actionable plan for the next day of work. This creates focus and improves self-management."

According to Agile Manifesto, "The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams." Simply put, the self-organizing team has the autonomy to decide how they will work together. The team is completely responsible for assigning and tracking their work/process.

The key benefits of self-managing teams in Scrum include:

  • A sense of shared ownership
  • Enhanced sharing and learning
  • Motivated and committed members
  • Innovative and creative environment

Overall, a self-organizing Scrum team has the freedom to how it manages the sprint. The team just has to ensure sprint goals fulfillment and stakeholders' satisfaction.

Challenges of a Self-Organizing Team

The way Scrum empowers the self-organizing team looks game-changing and exactly what the development team needs today in the competitive and fast-paced era. But the ground reality is different, as many Scrum teams struggle with this concept during the initial phases. The main challenges faced by self-organizing teams are as follows:

1. Team Enthusiasm

When the team begins transitioning from traditional project management to Scrum, there is a lot of enthusiasm for the freedom and empowerment of the team. However, challenges begin to pop up as the team gets deeper into Scrum.

Talking specifically about the self-organizing aspect, the communication gap, lack of decision-making, blaming, and other concerns start to disturb the team. The most common response in this situation is to divert back to old methods or adjust the Scrum principles for convenience. For instance, Scrum Master starts playing the role of project manager, and the team members start getting assigned tasks instead of picking themselves. This approach gives relief to a struggling self-organizing team, but its impacts are worse than its benefits.

2. Personality Issues

A Scrum team includes different kinds of people with different personalities. Some like to work alone and don't like socializing, while others are more collaborative, social, and engaging. In the traditional project management approach, there is a project manager that deals with different personalities and keeps the team managed.

However, Scrum eradicates project managers and makes teams interact frequently and make decisions independently. So, if a Scrum team involves different personality members, then the initial days will be struggling and conflicting, even resulting in project delays or quality issues.

3. Dominant Personalities Biasness

Often teams include a person who intends to keep his/her opinion on top of others. The presence of such people in a self-organizing team can hinder others' ability to engage in useful discussions. In fact, new team members might even hesitate to speak out or go against the opinion of the dominant personality.

Scrum wants every member to contribute to decision-making, as it brings different mindsets together and helps to make fruitful results. Therefore, the presence of one or more dominant personalities can make it difficult for teams to self-organize and make decisions.

4. Struggling to Make Decisions

The new Scrum teams often take a longer time to make decisions. Often there are issues of unnecessary delays, prolonged discussions, conflicting opinions, and difficulty reaching a consensus.

When team members, used to the practice of assigned duties, are forced to decide what they will do, it leads to disputes and prolonged decision-making. This challenge is mainly due to the lack of Scrum training or resistance to change.

5. Stakeholders' Mindset & Interference

Scrum almost completely changes how stakeholders interact with the development team. For instance, when a sprint is started, stakeholders can no longer request changes unless the changes will facilitate the sprint goal. It is because any deviation during the sprint can impact productivity and quality.

In traditional project management methodology, stakeholders can interfere anytime and request changes. So, when stakeholders are asked to follow Scrum methodology, they might initially interfere with the Scrum team and affect their self-organizing aspects.

6. Lack of Proper Accountability

Scrum changed the concept of team accountability, which previously relied on the hand of the project manager. First, Scrum empowers the development team to pick the product backlog items for the sprint. Secondly, it limits the Scrum Master's role as a leader/facilitator instead of the manager. Third, Scrum makes the team accountable to itself and no one else.

Due to the shift in accountability, new Scrum teams often face different challenges, such as lack of metrics/measurements, lack of ownership, diffusion of responsibilities, confusion in roles, resistance to taking decisions, and similar others.

Best Practices to Build an Effective Self-Organizing Scrum Team

Hurdles and challenges can occur when any team transits to Scrum and enforces self-organizing culture. However, some best practices and the right approaches can mitigate those challenges. So, below are the seven best practices to build an effective self-organizing Scrum team:

1. Thorough Training

Unlike the traditional project management methodology that looks easy to master, Scrum requires proper training and knowledge. So, before the team begins the transition, it should first get thorough training about all the Scrum principles, roles, responsibilities, events, etc.

Besides familiarizing themselves with Scrum concepts, the team should also be given role-specific training. For example, the development team should be trained to be self-organized, collaborative, etc. Similarly, Scrum Master should be trained to be a facilitator, not a manager.

The training process should continue even when the transition to Scrum begins, especially in areas where the Scrum team is struggling.

2. Enforce the Pull System

One of the aspects of a self-organizing team is that the development team can choose what tasks to do without someone assigning those tasks. Since many teams struggle in this stage, they should use the pull system.

In the pull system, every member can choose tasks from the sprint backlog during the sprint planning meeting. Afterward, once the member has completed the previously picked task, he/she is given the list of pending sprint tasks that are not assigned to anyone till now. At this stage, the member has to interact with the rest of the team about the pending task and choose more tasks for himself.

This way, the pull system approach not just empowers team members to pick the tasks themselves but also encourages communication and coordination among team members.

3. Empower Team Members

New Scrum teams are both excited and scared about self-management. So, they need some extra courage and support to get into the self-organizing mindset. For that, team members should be given the freedom to make mistakes, learn from them, and grow without any fear of criticism.

With a safe-to-fail environment, fostering a sense of ownership, encouraging decision-making, and having open communication, team members will feel more empowered and committed to becoming a successful self-organized team.

4. Avoid Blame Game

The self-accountability of the team can turn into chaos if it remains unchecked. Dominant personalities in the team might openly blame other members. Such practices discourage members and compromise productivity.

To avoid the blame game culture, the team should develop a mindset that individual failure is the team's failure. When someone fails, the team should come together to identify the root cause of the failure and collaboratively find solutions. Instead of pointing fingers, team members should focus on understanding what went wrong and how they can improve collectively.

Similarly, the team should turn "blame" into "learning and improvement". This way, setbacks and failures become learning opportunities, helping the team improve its processes and performance.

5. Contribution of Scrum Master

Scrum Master has a key role to play in improving the efficiency of the self-organizing team. Some of the key Scrum Master can facilitate include:

  • Encourage the team to make decisions and take ownership.
  • Provide coaching on self-organization and other Scrum principles.
  • Identify and remove obstacles that impact the team's progress.
  • Set checkpoints to ensure the team is heading in the right direction.
  • Protect from external distractions.
  • Assist in resolving conflicts.

In short, Scrum Master can truly serve as the facilitator that a self-organizing Scrum team needs to make the journey easier and more efficient.

6. Built a Collaborative Environment

Self-organizing teams are nothing without collaboration. However, it is common to have members that are not good at communication and socialization. So, to encourage a collaborative environment, the team should test out different approaches.

Paper-based collaboration is one such approach to start with. For instance, if the team is prioritizing tasks, it can use dot voting with physical sticky notes of tasks. Similarly, if the team is estimating product backlog, it can use the Planning Poker technique to estimate backlog items using poker cards. Even if a few members are located in a remote location, the team can still conduct backlog estimation or other discussions through digital paper-based techniques, like Async Poker.

The paper-based approach allows all members to contribute, triggering a collaborative environment. Afterward, as the team gets more experienced with Scrum and members get more comfortable with the process, they can begin more verbal communication.

7. Conduct Regular Retrospective Meetings

The sprint retrospective is one of the main events in Scrum, executed at the end of the sprint. It is meant to review the practices/processes followed in the current sprint, discuss areas of improvement, and finalize the action plan.

In order to improve the efficiency of self-organizing teams, conducting regular retrospective meetings is a must. It helps the team reflect on their performance, celebrate successes, identify growth areas, and improve collaboration. This way, they can pinpoint shortcomings as a self-organizing team and grow together.

Wrapping Up - Concrete Experience with Scrum is the Key to Successful Self-Organizing Teams

Self-organizing teams are one of the core principles of the Scrum framework. It empowers the team to make decisions, collaborate, and take ownership, resulting in more morale boost, enhanced productivity, and effective teamwork. However, challenges can occur when the team transits from traditional project management to self-organization. But the above best practices can significantly improve the efficiency of self-managing teams. On top of that, as the Scrum team completes a few sprints and gets experience, it can gradually uplift its self-organizing capabilities. To sum up, experience and the right approach can let any Scrum team utilize its full potential as a self-organizing unit.

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