Reading time: 7 minutes

Have you ever been on a team whose members had problems getting along and working well together? Chances are, you have. I know I have.

It can be even worse on a self-organizing team, because (typically) there isn’t a manager who sets norms for behavior and and may even resolve interpersonal problems. (Of course, we all know agile teams that do have managers, but I’m talking about agile frameworks as they’re designed.)

And, in a sense, all teams are self organizing. Every team has a different group of people in it, so the relationships end up being different. Even if the team has a manager, the way the group works together depends a lot on the particular team members.

When I took the Certified Scrum Master training, the class was divided into teams, and we all learned the Scrum framework so we could use the Scrum framework to design a cooperative boardgame that would teach the players about the Scrum framework (talk about recursive and self-referential!). Being on the team gave me some interesting experiences to add to my experiences on teams.

Everyone else on the team had significant experience with Scrum already. What helped me survive and thrive on that team were the skills I’ve learned as a mediator. I’m going to tell you about three of those skills, and how you can use them to help yourself survive and thrive on self-organizing teams.

Three Secrets to Surviving and Thriving on Self-Organizing Teams

1) Be patient

My first secret to surviving and thriving on self-organizing teams is to be patient. Be patient with yourself and with others. Be patient with the framework, especially if you’re new to it.

The best way to help yourself be patient is to breathe. I know everyone says this, but it works. Breathe deeply, from your gut, and keep doing it.

I’ve gotten myself through several particularly difficult mediations by using breathing to help myself be patient. One time, I had a client who I had a hard time working with for personal reasons. Also, I thought he was insensitive, lordly, and arrogant. Plus which, I hadn’t had my coffee yet! I got myself through that mediation by breathing deeply, and also by reminding myself that I’m a skilled, experienced mediator. I did so well that the trainee who was observing me that day, couldn’t tell that had had a hard time working with that client.

Other things you can do to help yourself be patient are to take a break, and go for a walk around the block or around the parking lot. Doodle, if you can do it without looking disengaged. Get yourself some coffee. Or another Red Bull.

2) Accept ambiguity

My second secret to surviving and thriving on self-organizing teams is to accept ambiguity. Accept and tolerate ambiguity in other people’s actions, and in how the team will behave and interact once it’s self organized.

With all of my experience as a mediator, I’ve gotten good at simultaneously accepting everything my clients say at face value and assuming that everything they say could prove to be wrong.

The best way to accept ambiguity in other people is to notice the assumptions that you make. Then be willing to believe that, for example, a team member who sounds rude isn’t intending to be rude, that a team member who won’t follow the retrospective format isn’t trying to drive you crazy, that a team member who doesn’t contribute to the backlog grooming session isn’t being aloof.

In my team during the CSM training, there was one guy who kept explaining things to me over and over. Another guy, sitting next to him, would then add a sentence or two to further explain things. My gut assumption was that they were assuming I was too stupid to understand. But I accepted ambiguity, and came up with some other explanations. Some people explain things over and over because they’re trying to find the best explanation; they explain something once, they don’t think it’s the best explanation, so they explain it again, then they’re not satisfied, so they explain it a third time… you’ve probably worked with someone like this. Other people expect someone to interrupt when they’ve understood; maybe that guy was waiting for me to say something or to continue the conversation.

When I accepted that I didn’t know why that guy kept explaining things to me, it didn’t bother me so much, and I got more out of the team work.

3) Solve interpersonal problems incrementally

My third secret for surviving and thriving on self-organizing teams is to solve interpersonal problems incrementally. This reflects the way Scrum teams, in particular, work: at the end of each sprint (ideally), they hold a retrospective so they can reflect on their work during the Sprint, identify issues that need to be worked on, and commit to changes they can try for the next Sprint to resolve the issues.

To solve interpersonal problems incrementally, first try the simplest thing you can do; usually, that’s just to observe the other person. Next, try something a little more complex, like finding one thing you can do or say that changes the situation without doing anything overt. Next, try something a little more involved.

For example, when my training team stood up in front of our board for one of our last exercises, one of the guys stood in front of me, blocking my view of th board. So I did the simplest thing, which was just to observe him.

Before I go on, let me be clear that I don’t think this teammate was deliberately blocking my view of the board. I’be been a mediator long enough to know that a lot of times, people aren’t aware of what they’re doing, and they’re usually not being malicious.

But suppose this had been an ongoing team, and someone continued to stand in front of me every time we stood up in front of the board. In that case, I could have tried additional solutions incrementally.

A simple thing I could have done would have been to just step to one side of him or the other, and insert myself into the circle.

If I did that but he kept standing in front of me, I could have stayed where I was, with him in front of me – and participated in the meeting as though he wasn’t actually there. Sometimes, if you behave as though someone’s not doing something that they’re actually doing, that helps them realize that they’re doing it.

If this guy still continued to stand in front of me, and I thought he had a good sense of humor, I could have tried saying something like, “Hey, Nico, nice haircut.” If I thought he didn’t have a good sense of humor, I could have something that only he could hear, like, “Nico, excuse me,I can’t see the board.” (His name wasn’t Nico, btw.)

And if he still kept doing it, I could have said something to him in private, like, “I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but every time we stand up at our board, you stand right in front of me.”

At this point, you may be wondering, why not just say something direct to someone right away? Why not just say, “Every time we stand up at the board, you stand right in front o me and block my view.”

Here’s why. If you don’t know the person, you don’t know how they’ll react. Until you know the person better, it’s better to try different strategies that won’t anger him or her. Maybe a simpler strategy will solve the problem, but if not, you’ll know the other person better and you’ll be able to approach them better.

And if someone doesn’t notice the simple, minimally obtrusive strategies you try first, don’t dismiss them as being unobservant — after all, you’re trying minimal strategies.

Survive and Thrive on Self-Organizing Teams

Adjusting to a self-organizing team can be hard. It’s particularly hard if you’re new to self-organizing teams. Make it easier for yourself by being patient, accepting ambiguity, and solving interpersonal problems incrementally.

With these three secrets, you can survive and thrive on self organizing teams.


Photo credit: © Dan Dzurisin, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

When a Self-Organizing Team Succeeds, it Might be an Accident
Should a “Trouble Causing” Team Member be Removed from the Team?

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This