Created by Sabine Hahn

#favouritemodel No. 33 - Build and lead self-organized teams

The more complex the tasks, the more disruptive the industry and the more unpredictable the workday, the more important self-organized teamwork becomes. This is because classic, hierarchical leadership is simply too rigid and too slow - in addition to many other pitfalls that it entails in the VUKA world

Managers cannot react to every new development within a project without getting bogged down. So it's no surprise that even executives who don't (yet) know what exactly distinguishes self-organized teams would like to have them. But what does it mean when teams organize themselves? How can managers support them? What advantages do self-organized teams offer, and are there also disadvantages?

What is a self-organized team?

Self-organized work in teams is one of the basic principles of the Agile Manifesto and an irreplaceable building block in agile organizational development. Thus, self-organized teams are also called agile teams and vice versa. They form their own cosmos that can function autonomously. Control and responsibility are distributed over many shoulders. The degree of self-organization varies and is never "black and white" or "yes-no". To generalize, one could differentiate three levels:

  • At the lowest level, team members decide independently how best to do their work. The focus is on the "how.
  • At the second level, the teams additionally decide on the quality of the work content, i.e. set their own standards and control themselves.
  • At the third level, the team acts independently in an entrepreneurial manner and decides on its own work content, goals, and the way it is processed. The leadership roles are flexibly divided among different people.

It is important to note that these levels do not mean a ranking or a ladder that a company or team must climb. Because depending on the company or team context, a different level of self-organization is appropriate. The decisive question is therefore always: How much self-organization is beneficial for a company and how much is actually necessary?

Characteristics of self-organized, agile teams

A uniform and rigid definition does not exist (and would not fit agility). However, one can state: An agile team steers itself and follows a common vision. It makes the decisions necessary for operational processes on an independent basis. Because all stakeholders are involved in the decision-making process, everyone is familiar with the arguments and the pros and cons and supports the decisions (which is often not the case with hierarchical decisions). Empathy in communication and mutual support and cooperation characterize the behavior of such teams.

A popular example of self-organized teams is provided by the company Buurtzorg. The non-profit organization was founded in 2006 by Jos de Blok and four colleagues as a counterexample to the ineffective healthcare system in the Netherlands. Their mottos are "humanity before bureaucracy" and "we don't deliver care, we solve problems."

At Buurtzorg, self-organized care teams exist without hierarchies and are allowed, among other things, to make their own decisions about budgets and new hires. Although the costs per hour have increased as a result of the self-organized system, less hours are needed overall to care for the people. It has been calculated that the healthcare system in the Netherlands could save 40% of current costs if it adopted the Buurtzorg system. Buurtzorg launched a pilot phase in Germany in 2018, but initially had to withdraw in early 2022. The example shows: The development of self-organized work structures requires the investment of time and patience, especially if long-established structures are to be changed. This form of collaboration does not come about by being "ordered" and it needs the right framework conditions to germinate, to grow, to flourish.

Which corporate culture favors agile teams?

  • A culture of trust: within a given framework, employees can make decisions on their own responsibility. Decisions are made more quickly and the trust placed in employees also increases their motivation.
  • Error culture: moving away from the search for culprits to error awareness, error acceptance, neutral error communication, freedom from sanctions, joint error analysis, and changes in behavior and circumstances.
  • Feedback culture: Giving feedback in an appreciative way supports the development of individuals, teams and the organization, because companies also have their own "blind spots".
  • There should be maximum transparency in decisions and processes.

Decisive aspects of leadership culture for agile teams

  • The development of a clear leadership model with concrete behavioral patterns: the manager becomes more of a team developer and has a coordinating and moderating role.
  • Culture of doing and getting things done: as a leader, goals are embodied and networking is driven forward. This breaks down silos and shares knowledge.
  • Joint training (team workshops) in the interaction of manager and team on issues of collaboration, leadership and professional scope.
  • Employee competencies such as communication skills should be strengthened.
  • Meaning and purpose of tasks must be understood and accepted in the team.

Not to be undervalued: Mental health in the team

An environment in which everyone can perform at their best: clear rules in cooperation create security. At the same time, a culture of psychological safety, in which managers and team colleagues adapt their social interaction to the psychological needs in the team, supports the success of self-organized cooperation.

In order to be able to work in a self-determined and self-effective manner, people must be psychologically fit and able to regulate emotions well. This applies to employees as well as to managers. For the latter, it is often particularly challenging to let go, because inner voices can come forward with uncomfortable questions, such as "Who am I now when I let my team decide?" or "Am I up to the new leadership culture?"

It also seems important to me to emphasize that hierarchies and self-organized work are not contradictory per se. Self-organized work may also function in structures with hierarchical leadership. Each manager must decide for himself or herself what degree of self-organized and autonomous work is suitable for his or her area

How does my #favouritemodel help you?

The advantages of self-organized work and agile teams run through the entire company.

Agile teams are flexible and fast. They work efficiently and self-sufficiently, long feedback loops and stagnant workflows are a thing of the past and do not burden your company any further.

When employees are involved in decision-making processes and not only know the meaning and purpose behind their work, but also carry it, it usually boosts their motivation to work together.

Shared responsibility makes optimization approaches in the company visible more quickly - and more efficiently implementable.

You should also pay special attention to the critical facets of this type of collaboration, because as with all things, this agile methodology also depends on the right balance. Too much freedom can lead to an overload of the team and the organization. Teams that change frequently in their composition always need a new orientation phase, which can be exhausting and stressful for the team members.

The degree of self-organization always depends on the company and the individual requirements. Not all agile is the same, but can and should be flexibly adapted to the needs of your organization so that everyone benefits. Each leader must decide for their team and their company how high the degree of self-organization should be and in which steps this is achieved in order to be able to work efficiently. A basis for this can first be an inventory in your organization:

  • Where does the team stand now?
  • How much agility and self-organization is desired? And why?
  • What would be the consequences of increased self-organization of the individual teams?
  • Does the organization already bear these consequences?

Feel free to write me via our contact form if you are interested in consulting or training on the topic of self-organized work and would like to exchange ideas.



No news available.