Self-organising teams need the skills and the context

I’ve often worked with teams that advocate “self-organisation”. If it can be done then it is wonderful thing—it brings together autonomy and motivation, and great results are very often achieved.

But sometimes an attempt at self-organisation falls short, and while it’s easy to point to specific issues, I’ve often wondered what the general rule is. What are the necessary and sufficient conditions to get it right? I sometimes hear “You just don’t get it”, but that’s lazy and doesn’t explain things. I’ve needed something more tangible.

Then the other day I had a conversation with Stephen Morris, who also mentioned the challenge with self-organising teams, and he had what I was looking for: “they need the skills and the context,” he said. I like this very much.

Of course having the right skills is important. Team members need to understand the part each of them plays; different members will need different kinds of leadership and management skills; as a whole they need to be able to do the necessary jobs to get a great result.

But the team also needs context, because they have to be able to determine that they are doing the right thing. They need to devise the most appropriate actions, and provide their stakeholders with confidence that it is indeed the best approach.

Roughly speaking, the skills give them the internal capability, and context ensures they interface appropriately with the rest of the organisation.

In fact, “skills and context” is a useful pairing generally, and is likely to help many more team situations than just self-organisation. Many thanks to Stephen for the insight.

Photo by Barbara Krawcowicz