Thursday, February 18, 2010

Secret sauce of a successful self-organizing team

I see many teams struggle with how to become a self-organizing team. Even with supportive environment (trust and empowerment) with a few constraints (important, otherwise chaos will ensue. Mike Cohn has a very good post on the topic.), I see teams struggle with it. In fact, I have seen teams very self-organizing even in a less than supportive environment. So, the question is what is at the core of a self-organizing team?

Let's look for examples outside our industry. One comes to mind is the 6-time winner of NBA championship Chicago Bulls. Phil Jackson is a master at assembling and then fostering a self-managing team. He surrounded Michael Jordan with teammates that not only had complementary functional skills, but more importantly complementary emotional intelligence. If we mapped this team's EQ along multiple dimensions, I bet that it would look like a balanced polygon. You might argue that it was all about Michael. I would say he was a piece of the puzzle, a center piece I might add. However, Phil has done it with two more teams at LA Lakers. So, it is not just Michael, but being able to create a team with a balanced EQ map.

What do we learn from this? To become self-organizing, a team must have a EQ map that would look like a balanced polygon. I am coaching a team for a while now that struggled with becoming self-organizing team. We would discuss what we could do at the retrospective, but not much improvement was seen. The team would not follow through on the action items. However, things changed after we hired a QA person. He was very detailed oriented (as you would expect from a good QA person) as well as a good organizer. He started to help the team to follow through on items that come out of daily Scrum and retrospectives. Things have gotten a lot better after that.

Individual emotional makeup contributes to a team's collective emotional makeup. Some of us are extroverts, and some are not. Some like to organize, while some like to follow. Some like to pay attention to details, while some like to stay at the abstract level. Some feel comfortable voicing opinion, while some don't. Some can make decisions quickly, while some are very good at playing devil's advocate. It is important that we have a good  mix of all these elements of EQ. A common misconception is that if we hire the best people (with functional skills) we will succeed. If we do so without looking at EQ, we run the risk of falling prey to groupthink and be blind-sided, or  even worse crippled with still-mate or overpowered by a loudmouth (have a good post on this by Chris). The team eventually crashes and burns.

It is easy to develop a missing functional skill, or plug the gap from outside help, but it is very difficult to plug a hole in the emotional makeup of a team. Some of the EQ elements define who we are, and can only be nurtured and fine-tuned, but not drastically be changed. It is certainly so in the time-frame we want on a project.

So, hire not only for functional skills but also for EQ skills that the team needs.