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Do self-organising teams require leadership, or is it an oxymoron to be the leader of a self-organising team?

Our approach and expectations

At NewVoiceMedia, we form cross-functional teams that are encouraged to self-organise. We expect every member to take full ownership of the work flowing through the team; everyone is responsible for making sure we solve the right problem, the right way. Despite these expectations, we still grapple with how to do self-organising well, debating, in particular, whether teams should have a nominated technical-lead.

I was discussing this conundrum with a thought-leader from another tech company, and was reminded of the following (true) story that might provide some helpful guidelines in this tricky area.

A true story ...

Once upon a time, in a desolate part of deepest, darkest Africa, a team of four missionaries were visiting some remote villages. The terrain was dry, stony and undulating. Due to years of drought, many of the river beds had dried up. One day, the team were travelling by 4x4 via a cross-country route (roads were few and poorly maintained in this area) when the driver attempted to cross one such river bed. Unfortunately, he misjudged the steepness of the bank and the 4x4 became stuck, grounded on some rocks.


No amount of pushing or rocking by the team would shift it. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a large group of villagers appeared and joined in the effort to dislodge the 4x4. People were pushing, pulling, digging, piling rocks and generally doing whatever looked helpful. Despite all these efforts, the wheels kept spinning and the 4x4 remained stuck.

The team's goal was to get the 4x4 moving again. The team had at its disposal a large collection of muscle and weight, but left to self-organise, the group was failing to achieve its goal. The breakthrough came when one of the team stepped back and surveyed the scene. He took in the bigger picture, and saw where the vehicle was grounded and why the current efforts were ineffective. He then co-ordinated the group, directing who should push where, who should hang off what, and when the driver should accelerate or brake. Once correctly organised, the group's efforts finally had the desired effect and the 4x4 climbed out of the river bed.

~ The End ~

And the moral of the story?

So what can we apply from this story to leading self-organising teams?

Firstly, teams benefit when one or two people regularly step back and survey the scene, taking in the whole landscape. When multiple feature teams are working on a large code-base, then the surveyors should also look out for local, micro optimisations which are at the detriment of the larger organisation.

Secondly, having someone regularly check on the coordination and distribution of the team's skills, knowledge and energy can keep a team's effectiveness on track. Note that this is different from leadership. Good leaders provide their team with a goal/direction, e.g. "we need to build a world-class widget service" and then empower the team to figure out themselves how to get there. The coordination required in this case is more like that of an orchestra conductor or a film director. These roles aren't telling people how to play or how to act, but ensuring they understand the context, and enter at the right time and tempo.

To conclude, self-organising teams benefit from these kinds of small adjustments. Anyone on the team can orchestrate them; it doesn’t have to be a single, permanent “leader”. What is essential though, is that somebody steps up from within the team and does this, and that somebody is not always the same somebody!

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