Squadification whiteboard diagram
AgileProject management

Self-organising teams – an idea worth spreading?

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4 August 2014

Guest blog by Marina van Wyk
Heading to a recent Agile Auckland network event, I was quite sceptical about the subject, but curious enough to drag myself along on a rainy winter night after work.
The self-organising organisation? Yeah, right, I thought.
Even when the presenters ran a small survey around the packed room at the start of the session asking if we could visualise our respective organisations letting staff choose who they work with and what they work on, my hand didn’t go up.
But as the presentation went on, I could sense my “Yeah, right” slowly moving towards “Hmm, maybe…” – and by the end of the talk it was: “Actually, quite possible”.
Sandy Mamoli of Nomad8 and Trade Me Head of Projects David Mole shared their experience of how the concept of self-organising squads was introduced at Trade Me’s IT division.
The self-organising squad principle is based on the philosophy that people need to be happy in their daily jobs to be productive and efficient.  We feel motivated to do better for ourselves and the companies we work for, if we know that we are trusted. We want the best for our organisation and will make decisions accordingly.
The principle is easily applied to the IT industry because to deliver a usable and tested product, you need a mix of cross-functional skills. A squad is effectively a team of people that becomes self-sufficient to deliver a software product.
The important part of the Trade Me story is ‘self-organisation’ of the squads.  Instead of a programme manager forming the squads, staff were given a chance to choose which squad they wanted to be a part of and once organised, how they want to run their projects – agile, lean or waterfall.
Preparation and planning for the self-selection session was very thorough as the risk was huge. Trying to predict all the possible failure scenarios (one of which was the potential of a physical fight with a knife stabbing!), the organisers prepared to overcome any problem.  The session ran with a lot of visual materials and was carefully facilitated. It finished with two fully functional squads.
Fast forward almost a year and Trade Me IT projects are now delivered by about 22 self-organised squads.  The output of the technology department has increased and staff feedback about this ‘social experiment’ has been very positive.
Because the key metrics for Trade Me’s technology department is quick go to market, high quality products, and happy employees and customers, the self-organising squads helped achieve the company’s goals.
Can it be done in any organisation?  Maybe not.  The key dependency here is management support and the urgency for your organisation to change and evolve.
Can it be done in any IT project? I’d say it’s more likely than in an operational department of a business, due to the creative aspect of software development, which is often overlooked.
Of course, the idea of letting staff self-select who they work with and on which projects is scary. Like any change, it takes very brave people to take that leap.
Could self-organising teams be the way to run projects in future?  Would this concept work in your organisation?
Read more on the Trade Me project here.
Image courtesy of Nomad8
Marina van Wyk is a Senior Business Analyst with 10 years’ experience in software development projects. She offer insights from her involvement in various IT projects at Telecom, Vodafone, Auckland Council, Vero Insurance and others. 

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