Self-Organizing Teams

By Paul Spencer

Self-organization has, in recent years, distinguished itself as a game-changer in corporate practice, regardless of the industry. Self-organizing teams produce some of the best results.

Traditional teams are ones that are directed by a supervisor outside the team. Self-organizing teams don’t run the same way. A self-organizing team is a team with the autonomy to decide how they will accomplish their work. Some teams may decide to assign all technical decisions to one team member. Others may decide to split responsibility – the overarching principle is that the team decides one way or another.

Find out more about what self-organizing teams are and how they work.

The overarching principle of self-organizing teams is that the team decides - period.

Overview of Self-Organizing Teams

There are dozens of benefits to reap from learning to become a self-organizing team. In a self-organizing team, team members participate actively and collectively to realize business objectives. They assign work to themselves with timelines and manage any responsibilities that arise. However, this is not to imply that the team’s say is final; self-organizing teams still work in the context of the business.

Self-organizing teams are more than simply a group of people in charge of their own work schedule. For their working style to succeed, self-organizing teams must always have a keen sense of responsibility and ownership. Regular communication and trust in the capabilities of team members are essential ingredients.

Self-organizing teams are responsible for finding the most efficient and effective way to finish assignments/work, and they frequently use experimentation to improve productivity and service delivery.

Characteristics of Self-Organizing Teams

Below are some defining characteristics of self-organizing teams:

Overall Order Emerges From Local Interactions

Multiple team members interacting locally lead these teams toward overall order and global coordination. They are robust, yet flexible – able to adapt and change quickly when there are disruptions - because one team member will immediately step in to fill the gap.

Organization is Decentralized

The team is fully responsible for assigning and tracking their work progress. You don’t need to hire managers to organize the team. What’s more, there is minimal time-wasting because they don’t have to wait for a leader’s opinion in crisis or disruption. They simply act to minimize damage and set things back on course.

An Island of Predictability in a Sea of Chaos

The same problems that happen in any business environment also happen with self-organizing teams. However, the predictability lies in the fact that the team will spontaneously organize itself to cope with external stressors. They can quickly handle destabilization to regain balance.

More Robust than Command/Control Teams

All team members have potential that is hardly maximized in traditional manager-team setting. The manager dictates tasks, deadlines, and handles crises. In self-organizing teams, however, there is room to explore talents when an opportunity arises. All team members have a chance to show their potential, particularly during crises.

Structure of the Self-Organizing Team

Overall order and global coordination results from local interactions between team members. This is the simplest self-organizing team, also known as the organic self-organizing team. In a random system, team members quickly direct themselves or each other to do what needs to be done. Over time, as more interactions occur, more order develops until there is global order in the whole team.

Attractor States

In self-organization, there is a spontaneous appearance of order as a result of interactions at the local level. As interactions continue, there may be areas that align themselves to form complimentary, attractor states. Other members are attracted to the working group and complement them too, continuing until there is global coordination.

Feedback Loop

Self-organization may also occur through a positive feedback loop, aka the network effect. Here, more people using a particular product, service, or scheme of work make it more valuable. Therefore, local interactions lead more and more people into the team, which quickly develops global patterns. This feedback loop attests to the synergistic effect of coordination between elements.


Self-organizing teams have a high degree of robustness because of the diversity of the team members. This diversity makes them better at absorbing change and responding to/surviving external crises or disruptions. Periodical perturbations provide opportunities for team members to demonstrate their potential by quickly adapting to address any gaps or disruptions that arise.

Rules of Engagement

Of course, every self-organizing team has a common language, called rules of engagement in self-organizing teams. These rules are developed together and are subject to change as the team finds valid constraints in sticking to them.

The rules of engagement dictate the information required to operate within the team, how feedback loops should be carried out, how local interactions should happen, and response to any sources of change. The rules are intentionally ambiguous to allow for interpretation of a wide variety of situations.


Self-organizing teams communicate in different ways depending on whether they are communicating internally or externally.

Internal Communication

To maintain speed and efficiency, engaging and timely verbal feedback is preferred over documentation – remember trust in team members is one of the tenets of the team. Continuous honest feedback and knowledge sharing improve trust.

Focused and spontaneous interactions are valued over scheduled meetings. This allows the team to interact when the need arises, and continue working if there is no need for interaction.

While plans may be made, self-organizing teams are responsive to change. Since the plan came from all of them, they can tweak/change it to suit new circumstances.

External Communication

More structure is needed when communicating outside of the team. External communication guidelines include:

  • Timely and engaged feedback that may be documented at intervals
  • Focused and regular scheduled meetings to create predictable interactions
  • Embracing change, but communicating changes in plans as a result of new circumstances

Generally, external communication creates a balance between the spontaneity of the self-organized team and the structure of the traditional teams.

Final Thoughts

Self-organizing teams are central to managing change. In this article, we explored what they are and how they operate. Building a self-organizing team is not easy: the leader (yes, there is still some form of leadership) must find a unique balance between guiding the team and allowing the team to do its best work by self-governing.

Regardless of the learning curve, there are dozens of benefits to reap from adopting self-organizing team methodologies. The end results will be well worth the initial investment and whatever challenges you face in the transition process.

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