Coaching a team to self-organisation

Way back in the mists of time, I was a junior tech lead full of eagerness and naivety. I was lucky enough to have access to a great mentor. Frustrated with the team and our progress (or lack thereof), I complained to him - our ways of working just aren’t prescriptive enough. We need to lay out everyone’s roles and responsibilities more clearly, and get people to commit to doing the things they should, I said. His response was one that’s stayed with me, and proven to be true again and again. “When people say there’s a problem with roles and responsibilities, that’s never actually the problem”.

Hopefully everyone's on board with the notion that prescriptive roles and responsibilities are not a productive way to run a team. Nonetheless, a “roles and responsibilities problem” - now, just as likely to be branded as a "failure to self-organise" - is one of the first symptoms I look for in identifying and diagnosing team dysfunctions. The symptoms are always pretty similar - people feel hard done by with what they are assigned, there are things that routinely get missed, dropped, or foisted onto the same individual who doesn’t want to do it, and implicit or explicit accusations will abound.

You can paper over these cracks by being more directive over who does what, but this solution is likely to more problems than it solves; at best the team may become dependent on you to function, but realistically the underlying cause of the dysfunction will just pop up somewhere else, causing more harm to everyone’s happiness, engagement and productivity along the way.

Underlying issues

There are many individual and group dynamics that can lead to these kinds of symptoms, and you need to be constantly watching for these kinds of toxic underlying issues, as they will continue to pollute the working environment and disrupt the team.

  • Who’s underperforming in the team, and what impact is it having on their colleagues?
  • Whose performance is lower than their ego makes them think it is? Whose performance is better than they’re being recognised for?
  • What are the power dynamics in the team, and who’s abusing their power? Remember that power may be invested/hierarchical, but it may also be social or connection-based (cliques and in-crowds, who’s friends with the boss, etc), based on expertise or knowledge (manifests negatively as gatekeeping, denying access), or even coercive. Power dynamics are hardly ever straightforward.

If you don’t put the work in to identify these issues, or proactively deal with them once you’ve identified them, then the situation can only deteriorate from there. Moreover, you’re doing your team members a disservice to not help them confront issues that are holding them back.

Core foundations

With those dynamics in mind, you can then start working on the core foundations of creating a collaborative team. No surprises for thinking that “teambuilding exercises” are not a good place to start. Instead, work on the basics…

  • Is the team working on one single shared objective (goal) at a time?
  • Does everyone on the team understand the objective and the vision/strategy that drives it?
  • Does the team have a shared view on how to tackle the objective?
  • Does everyone have the skills they need to carry out their jobs or provided with the opportunity to acquire them?
  • Are “office housework” tasks (repetitive administration tasks) being shared equally and equitably amongst the team?

You might find that it's enough for a team to work with greater clarity and shared direction, or you might find that there's still friction or ambiguity over who should be doing what, or important tasks might still get lost. In that case, the team still needs to take action.

Team coaching

The process of coaching is sometimes described as "holding up a mirror" to allow people to reflect on what's actually happening, so that they may decide their own actions to fix a problem. These actions tend to be more effective and longer-lasting than externally directed changes. The following exercise is a team coaching exercise - it's not designed to tell people what to do or how to work together, but rather provide them with a perspective on the current situation which they can use to make a decision together about what to change and how.

Note this isn’t a way to determine roles and responsibilities, but a way to support the team in self-organising.

Start by getting the team members to list as many tasks as they can think of… basically everything that they, as individuals or collectively, have to do or thinks someone else needs to do. Provide as little guidance as possible here - it’s often illuminating to see what the team thinks is involved! They can be as detailed and specific as they like… if “check that the designers have attached the figma links to the ticket” is a piece of work they think needs doing, then it is. Do, however, encourage the team to think widely about their tasks. What about clearing the coffee mugs off the table at the end of the day? Preparing for meetings or taking notes? Responding to questions from other teams? Try to capture all the informal work as well as the formal work. There’s a chance you’ll get some good insights from this alone.

The next stage is for people to start adding their names to tasks. If you are working in a bigger team or you need more visibility you can ask people to specify if this is something they do a lot or only occasionally, if they consider it part of their “core” area or if it’s something they’ll pick up if nobody else can. I would recommend keeping it as simple as possible, at least for the first pass.

As you’re going through the tasks, allow people to flag tasks for further discussion. Maybe they feel like the task shouldn’t be one that the team should pick up at all, or maybe it’s a workaround or hack to a problem that has a better solution. Or maybe it’s a topic that causes a lot of arguments. It’s a great opportunity to see if these tasks cluster together in any way - maybe they’re all related to the same part of the codebase, or to a particular person, or represents a missing skill set or area of expertise. It's often a great way to spot silos as well.

Pay attention to tasks which have no names on them - if there’s work that needs to be done but nobody’s doing it, then of course there are going to be problems. Also check if the “best” and “worst” tasks (most difficult/repetitive/interesting/boring/frustrating...) are always going to the same people - this might indicate some hidden hierarchies or power dynamics in the team.

Hopefully, discussion and actions will follow naturally from this point. If they do, then step back and let it happen! If people are more hesitant, then you might want to use something similar to the GROW model to help the team articulate what they want to change and how they're going to ensure that change happens.

It's never that easy...

Actually, sometimes it is. Sometimes it's as easy as making sure everyone knows what to do. Sometimes it's just a case of ignorance or naivety or realigning everyone around the same priorities. This is more often the case in new or larger teams.

Sometimes there will still be personality clashes, conflicts or disagreements that continue beyond that point. I don't have a playbook for how to deal with these - every one is unique and comes with its own history and context (and based on my inability to get my two kids to stop squabbling, I'm feeling poorly qualified to speak on the subject). But without the excuse of roles and responsibilities to hide behind, hopefully they become easier (or at least clearer) to deal with.