Are you still Following or do you Lead Already?

Are you still Following or do you Lead Already?

The topic of our last StugHH Event reminded me of the German IKEA slogan “wohnst Du noch, oder lebst du schon” (something like “Are you still dwelling or have you got a life already?”). The topic was: “Self-organized teams? Hierarchy? And QA/IT right in the middle?” The event showed that there is a lot to discuss, and the panelists shared openly their experiences with the partially stunned audience. While the discussion and even more the topic is way too large to cover in one blog, I will pick a few perspectives that struck me.

The panel was staffed by: Torsten Franz, FFG Finanzcheck Finanzportale GmbH, Kim Nena Duggen, oose Innovative Informatik eG and Malte Finsterwalder,  red-6, and we had about 20 other contributors at the great location at “Wer liefert was”. Thanks to all!

Intrinsify me – really?

Intrinsically motivated people are assumed to be essential for self-organized teams. In Germany there is a network called “intrinsify me”, supporting to get companies fit for the future walking the path of self-actualization. It also gives a list of examples and articles showing “it works”. Well, I doubt we are all there. The discussion of the evening for example showed, that even in very mature teams at some point in time the question of salary arises. I do not think that this is because “we have not tried it yet seriously” but because it is very human. Psychological research shows different theories of motivation, the mostly known is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And also in our work context this holds: all your basic needs and most of your psychological needs have to be fulfilled before self-actualization really gets relevant.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs


Another way to look at this would be the idea of man for the people you work with. It would take a rather mature person, described as “Self-actualizing man” or “complex man” in psychology. While the self-actualizing man strives for autonomy and prefers self-motivation and self-control, the complex man is able to integrate new motives and strives for different targets depending on the situation.

Interestingly, two of the panelists had a different perspective of the idea of man: Kim seemed to have the idea, that everybody really would be able to be a complex person, only hindered by past learning, but it is only a question of time. Torsten instead expressed the experience that some people are just not there. And there is at least only little hope that they will get there in a decent time.

So, do you lead already?

Kim brought up that the only point that gets challenging at times in self-organized teams is the question of leading. Obviously there still is leading, in the sense of the ability of an individual to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the organization.  Leadership is not dependent on title or formal authority. Malte even brought it to the point of: sure I lead almost all the time. But if I need a title, I make one up, depending on context.

There are many theories of leadership, I am not going to list them, but some styles obvious fit better than others in a team on par. Leading in a self-organized team is far beyond hierarchy but more towards having a specific role in a specific context. It can be the coaching of new people. It can be bringing up new ideas for the company. It can be having a great technical idea….

If nobody wants to take the lead, then there need to be rules of the team that prevent such a situation. Someone needs to do certain things, like book-keeping. That sounds reasonable. But what if a bunch of alpha males/females have a conflict? What if there is no escalation possibility – actually “escalation” is a word than only makes sense in hierarchical context! There are some management theories out there trying to tackle this, one of the frameworks supporting them is the “Holacracy”. Here the basic idea is that organization is about roles people can fill and where they do have authority – within limits that are agreed before like in a constitution of an organization. Learning this will take long. Even the theory classes last several days to get the whole picture, and practice only starts then.

One additional dimension here are the boundaries of the self-organized team. Is there someone giving directions to it? Are there customers who want a specific respectable lead? For the first issue it is not as easy as just including the next level. At least from a timing perspective this definitely is a problem a team will have to cope with. And similar to the customer situation, the team + the person outside the team will have to be inventive to find good ways of communication serving both needs.

How to get superb?

Obviously, self-organization is not a goal in itself, but the success of a team is. Ruth Wageman asks the question: “Which has the greater impact on team performance, team design or effective coaching”. As a result of her research she points out, that the team design is by far more important to the success of a self-organized team, than the behavior of leading people. While high-quality coaching does influence how well a team manages itself, it does so to a much smaller degree. A well-coached, poorly designed team has no chance, bad coaching on not well designed teams can be detrimental. Coaching errors, however, have much less impact on a well-designed team. A well-designed and well-coached team has obviously the best chance. A coach would need the knowledge of the design factors, the diagnostic skills to tell what is missing and the ability to act. Ruth describes the leader with different roles over time: first as a designer of the team, then as midwife to setup team goals and norms and last as a coach.

Just for completeness – here are Ruth’s 7 critical success factors to ensure effectiveness of a self-organized team:

–         Clear, engaging direction

–         A real team task

–         Rewards for team excellence

–         Basic material resources

–         Authority to manage the work

–         Team goals

–         Team norms that promote strategic thinking

Before you complain: yes, this is not fully self-organized. There still is some leader out there, just with a different role. Maybe you want to take the exercise to see if this can be transferred to a role within the team? Or a circle of responsible people?

Why the whole stress?

Alright, leading is not easy, I need special people in self-organization… I need to really carefully design the team…., I have to work closely with others…, people are not “there yet”…, what about non-experienced people…, management does not want to give up control…

When reading many articles (incl. this one) it seems as if the self-organization is at the top of development, the organization close to heaven. Therefore the evangelistic voice of some of the articles – which I dislike. It should not be just taken as a given ideal. It reminds me of discussions with old representatives of the “Marx School”: Whenever something does not work, it is only because we have not yet reached the ideal not be questioned.

Also, you can find many articles about why this does not make sense at all and will lead to chaos in most organizations. To give a few examples:

–         “There are no bosses here, because I say so” so there still is obviously someone out there on a higher hierarchical level (The Economist)

–         “Hierarchy is inevitable” – there are always people with more power than others (Prof. Bob Sutton)

So why should I try the whole thing? Or When?

Gabelstapler = Forklift: Never assume you know the meaning of a word, our host WLW reminds

Here I finally come back to the context where we started off: QA/IT. Self-organization is crucial in the agile world, as already said in the agile manifesto: “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams”.

Agile approaches are known to work best in a complex world. If the problem only was complicated, you might have enough time using traditional approaches to define and resolve the problem. I personally still would like to understand better, how agile really scales – the limitation to self-organizations might be on a similar level. And quite some of the agile scaling frameworks do introduce some hierarchy again: scrum of scrums (in LeSS) with representatives, SaFE has epics owners and enterprise architects. I am not really an insider of these methods, but it seems to me that with size, hierarchy comes back. Maybe not in the sense of job titles, but in the sense of very powerful roles.

As I am probably somewhere on the top of Maslow’s pyramid, I do appreciate self-actualization very much. And I am convinced and have experienced, that it is way more fun to work in a team of wonderful people on par. And I have seen great things happen in such teams.

So, while I would appreciate for my working context the highest possible degree of self-organization, I think that the boundaries to this do not only lie in psychological issues but also in size or problem to solve.


  1. Thank you for the article and the chance to discuss this topic in your specific context! Last week a customer had the following epiphany after a training: “ah, now I get self-organized work! It doesn’t mean we have no rules or no lead – it just means we decide and act on those as a team!” I think this covers it perfectly

  2. Hanne Papke

    Thank you for this comprehensive summary of a great evening at the STUGHH. Self-organizating teams are sure the pride of creation. A lot of people may have experienced such kind of work once in a while, including myself. It feels great! But I am still doubtful, if it works nowadays in real companies with real-life people. Salary was stressed as a critical topic, career is another one. At least as an appreciation of seniority.

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