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Self-Organizing Teams: What's in It for Developers?

23 December 2015

Philipp Flenker
Mountain News Corporation

I asked this seemingly simple question during one of the sessions at the Global Scrum Gathering® in Prague: What do developers gain when teams self-organize?

To my amazement, I did not get one satisfying answer.

Why it matters

From a motivational point of view, bottom-up Scrum is easy. In most cases, developers have some kind of pain, or desire, that drives their will to change. They are eager to change, and what's better than taking their fate into their own hands and becoming self-organized?

Things look different from a top-down approach. Suppose there's someone from management who wants Agile. He sees the value of shared knowledge, fast iterations, continuous integration, and so on. Let's also suppose that he drives the change throughout the company, and the only missing thing is that the developers start self-organizing and undergo the positive feedback cycle provided by constant inspecting and adapting. These days, everyone is talking about changing the Taylor paradigm and getting rid of management, so the question of what's improving for people who feel comfortable being managed is almost obvious.

What it means

I have talked to many developers in my career who were convinced that Scrum and Agile have failed, because more work is shifted onto them, preventing them from coding.

In some cases, they suddenly got all the heat that was previously shielded by their manager. They had to talk to or argue with coworkers about things that were simply decided on top-down earlier, and as a result they began to truly doubt that Agile held any value for them at all.

What's in it for developers?

Let's consider the following scenario:

Claire, a developer, has been working for her company for ten years in the same position. She does not mind that she is still considered a junior developer, and she certainly does not mind that she works eight hours a day, then takes her hands off the keyboard and heads home.

She does not talk with her coworkers too much because she is an introvert and prefers that her manager make decisions for her. For this reason, the prospect of choosing her own work does not sound appealing to her; she just wants to code. Making the decisions is someone else's job. Claire does not get paid for being a decision maker.

Claire is happy with where she is right now. She has good hardware, good software, and a good manager, so statements like, "It's going to be more fun!" don't resonate with her at all.

Now, imagine you are a coach responsible for driving change in Claire's company. At some point, you mention self-organization, and Claire or her colleagues approach you and ask, "What's in it for me?"

The answer

It took me some time, but I figured it out: There is no answer. There is nothing you can promise Claire that she would believe.

The dilemma is twofold: A perceived short-term change for the worse and a long-term change for something Claire cannot grasp from where she is standing. You cannot explain to a caterpillar what it's like to be a butterfly. You can't even point at one and say, "This could be you!" The caterpillar won't believe you.

As you know, going Agile does not mean that Claire suddenly has to take the blame for everything that goes wrong or for every bug making its way into production. If that were the case, something would have gone horribly wrong in the Agile transition. Convincing Claire that things will not change for the worse is already a fair share of work. And so, to circle back to the question Claire asked, what's in it for her, "Nothing will change for the worse" is only half an answer.

So what is being a butterfly, really? It's about purpose. It's about caring. At this point, Claire does not care enough about her work to want it to improve. In our example, her life at home is what really matters, and the other stuff is "just work" — not even boring or bad, it just is. On a truly Agile team, her work life would become a meaningful part of her life, the same as her other activities. Her code would suddenly mean something to her, she would care about the product she helps deliver, and about the difference she makes. The joy of that can only be experienced, not explained. You have to become the butterfly before you can start flying.

Where to go from here

Please don't forget that this is only a scenario. There is no recipe for dealing with these questions in all contexts, and if you ever are in a situation like the one outlined, then you at least have Claire's interest. She has already found some motivation to even ask you.

In all your attempts to drive change, don't forget that there are introverts like Claire who won't be so kind as to ask you this question; they'll just see the very real, daunting scenario of a change for the worse, without knowing or believing that it will change for the better. Take special care of those people. Once you gain their trust, they will be loyal allies in your effort to change their working environment.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 3.5 (4 ratings)


Robert Day, CSM, 12/31/2015 4:22:33 AM
Philipp, I think you put your finger on part of the problem when you say "Claire does not get paid for being a decision maker." Just as Claire is not sufficiently motivated to change her mindset, her way of working, her goals and objwectives, so neiother is the company doing or saying anything that would encourage that change. They are happy that Claire is happy just sitting doing coding eight hours a day. To try to do anything different, to try to get Claire to change or even just top put her in an environment where Claire can see the possibility of change, requires some imagination on the part of line management.

Ultimately, this is an issue with top-down management and how they see their employees.
Tim Baffa, CSM, 1/4/2016 10:47:38 AM
How to motivate someone like Claire? To me, it isn't critical whether the person is an introvert or an extrovert. What stands out to me is that there is little identification between the work that Claire is doing, and the business value that is being created through her work.

She may be treating it as a 9-5 job, and comfortable just being told what to do, but that is symptomatic of the disconnect between her and the company. Help her to understand her role and the value she provides to the organization. Help her relate to the corporate vision, and how she can help influence that.

If she doesn't have a connection between her work and business value, no amount of agile or scrum coaching will be effective. It has to start there.

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