Coaching Self Organizing Teams

While I like the concept of a “self organizing” team, I’ve always been a little wary of what people think it means. What worries me is that it suggests that teams should manage things entirely on their own, which is overstating things. Certainly a good team does not need micro-management or a "command-and-control" type of treatment. This will weaken the team. However, even a team of superstars benefits from coaching to perform at its best. 

This has less to do with telling people how to do their work and more to do with the social aspects of teamwork.  Understanding each team member and helping them align to the work in small ways facilitates overall team performance. Here, from my experience, are a few examples of where such coaching is needed:

Taking ownership. Often, people are used to being told what to do, and the concept of a "self-organizing" team seems strange. To combat this, coaching is needed to transition a team to taking more ownership than they are used to. Sometimes this amounts to saying "I want you guys to discuss this problem amongst yourselves and come back to me with options" or encouraging people to set up meetings on their own or to make their own decisions.

Thinking through decisions. I understand the reluctance many people feel about making decisions on their own, especially if they make the wrong one. It takes coaching and guidance before we can feel comfortable about someone else's decision-making capability. In the beginning I like to use the Socratic method to help people understand how to think about the decision-making process, such as by asking questions such as "What are the different trade-offs for the decision you are making?", and "Who will benefit and who will lose the most from those trade-offs?"

Getting unstuck. Sometimes team members get hung up on small details or points of confusion or uncertainty. Even if they are not technically “impediments”, they cause team members to spin their wheels, or stop work altogether as they wrestle with a particular issue. When these issues are due to a particular perception or psychology, a good coach can be extremely helpful for recognizing it and providing another way of thinking that helps the the team through--or around--the issue.

Seeing the small details. It's great to have team members who are leaders in their own right, but I’ve found that in their eagerness to take action they sometimes miss small details or make certain assumptions which, if left unchecked, can lead to off-target results. An alert coach who is sensitive to the details can help point out small adjustments before work gets too far along.

Putting things into perspective. Complex or challenging projects come with a dose of stress and frustration. Team members can easily become demoralized for a variety of reasons and lose their momentum. Lifting spirits, acknowledging difficulties, and encouraging a positive perspective is often a critical need.

Sounding things out. Some team members need to bounce ideas off others in order to clarify their own thinking or understanding. Sometimes they just need someone to listen while they talk through a problem—even coming to the answer themselves as they do so. In such cases, lending an ear is a surprising easy and helpful way to improve productivity.

Staying on the vision. Occasionally, in their enthusiasm, a team may start shifting a project towards something they’re imagining instead of the original vision or requirements. In such cases it’s valuable to step in to remind everyone what the vision is—so they can re-align to it.

This is just a sample of the benefits good coaching provides. If you have been trying the "self-organizing" team approach and have been frustrated with the results, consider that a lack of good coaching may be at the root of the problem.