Why is Self-organizing so hard?

I was talking with a former co-worker last night who is working on a team that is struggling to adopt Scrum.  It appears that one of their biggest road-blocks is the teams’ inability to self-organize.  As soon as the sprint planning meeting is over, the team kinda waits around for someone to tell them what to do.  I have observed this same behavior on other teams as well.  Everyone you talk to that works in a command-and-control environment generally complains about it.  However, when they are given the opportunity to work on a self-organizing team, they immediately wait around for someone to tell them what to do.  I started thinking about this a lot last night trying to figure out why this happens on so many new Scrum teams.  I’m sure there are several different reasons for this…here are the top ones I came up with:

  1. Self-organizing means you are accountable for your actions.  When someone is telling you what to do, you can always blame them when it doesn’t work out as planned.  However, if you are self-organizing, that means you are now accountable for your actions.  That can be a very uncomfortable place to be for many people.  The rewards are high but so are the risks.
  2. A lot of teams have been burned too many times before.  A classic example of this is on a team I used to work with.  The development teams used to take a lot of ownership in deciding what to build and how to build it.  As the company grew, more staff was put in place to drive the direction of the products.  The development organization continued to function as always but suddenly started getting scolded for making bad decisions.  So, they backed off and went in a “sit and wait” mentality.  They were too scared to make any decisions for fear of being scolded.  They had to wait for the product team to tell them exactly what to build.  So, when this organization started implementing Scrum, the team was scared to make any decisions until the product team gave them exact details on what to do. 
  3. I think some people just flat out like being told what to do and others like telling people what to do.  It goes against their nature to work in a collaborative, self-organizing team.  If you have a team of people that like being told what to do and a leader that likes telling them what to do, I think you are going to have a hard time getting these teams to operate well in an agile environment.  I would suggest breaking up these teams and mixing them up with other people to help break up that mentality.

One Response

  1. You are spot on with this.

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