Balancing Self-organization


A colleague shared a great article with me today. It’s titled, Nobody really owns product work and was written by Jonas Downey. I don’t know Jonas, but I feel he’s got some real wisdom to share. As I read the article, I was struck by how idyllic it sounded. He described their development as “egalitarian” and balanced between deep investment in the work and an ego-less attitude to what is produced. This sounds like a very healthy pattern of self-organization in a software team. It got me thinking, “How could you improve upon this?”

The challenge

A challenge with this way of working is to balance collective ownership with the efficiency of operation, especially in a larger organization. Where I work, people are very collaborative and tend to share responsibility with each other. I also notice at times, it’s can be unclear how other groups should interact with teams practicing this highly collaborative teamwork. These questions are examples of ones I hear:

  • “Who do I talk to to get a new feature in the backlog?”
  • “Who do I talk to or where do I go to understand product functionality?”
  • “Who do I talk to if there is a problem with a deploy?”

The same goes for interactions with those outside the team, btw:

  • “Who do we talk to if we have a funding request?”
  • “Who do we connect with if we’re having a problem with a teammate we’re unable or unwilling to address ourselves?”
  • “Where do we go to ensure our work aligns with strategic, organizational goals?”

I find that an attitude of collective ownership of the work is fantastic. It’s made even better with clear roles that help people outside the team know how to interact with the team and vice versa. We use the phrase, “clear roles and responsibilities” to describe this. You can think of it like interfaces in code: what is this module responsible to do? What does it need to do its job? What happens if it experiences a failure or a breakdown?

There is a key part of this mix that we haven’t quite figured out yet. How do we make these roles and responsibilities discoverable to the organization? Just because someone has taken the role responsible for handling product deploy problems doesn’t mean that the account manager for a customer knows that. Additionally, once they have come to know that, what if that changes?

The wisdom of crowds

The wisdom of crowds could be useful to revisit in finding a way of making this work better. A wise crowd in this instance is equipped with at least two things IMO:

  1. Aggregation of information
  2. Trust that the collective group will be fair

The crowd must know where to go to find the answer to the question, “Who do I talk to or where is the information I need?” They must also know they can trust the crowd to provide for them what they need in a timely manner. Without aggregated information, a person in need will start asking around to find someone willing to help. Short of trusting that those able to help will help in an appropriate amount of time, a person may decide to keep looking, do the thing themselves, or abandon the effort entirely.

Leadership dilemma

The temptation for management is to tamp down this self-organizing behavior by requiring too much centralization of responsibility in the name of efficiency. This tendency when present favors stability over adaptability. If information, skill, or responsibility has become too centralized it would be of benefit to spread the knowledge or responsibility around a bit. This could be an improvement to be sure, yet there is always a risk that this will compound the problem of information scatter and lack of trust. The tension needs to be held between established practices and emergent order. Lean too far one way and an organization becomes rigid and brittle. Fall too far the other way and an organization sees decreased efficiency and chaos.

For self-organization to be focused, there must be an attitude collective ownership of a common goal. It’s made even better with clear lines of communication and well-known role responsibilities. A wise organization needs ready access to itself. It needs to know it’s capabilities and how it works best to exercise those capabilities. Persons in a wise organization need to be able to know what is being asked of them and that they can count on their teammates to deal fairly in view of the organization’s goals. For self-organization to flourish, leadership must be willing to hold the tension of order and chaos; they must be willing to find balance.


Jason is a developer, Scrum Master, writer, teacher, coach, husband, father, and community leader out of Tulsa Oklahoma. He's been delivering software since 2007 and absolutely loves the values and principles of agility especially as given form by the Scrum framework.