We have all heard, seen, and some of us have even experienced the benefits of a self organizing team. You hear all the time about the push by organizations towards self organizing teams, more so in the tech sector. Despite all its benefits, very few organizations have been fully able to fully realize it. What I have seen is, the larger the organization, the less the ability to make it happen.

So, let’s go back to look at our early days of chemistry for a moment. We all know about the differences between a mixture and a compound. Even if both the mixture and the compound had the different constituent elements in the same ratio, they would behave differently, wouldn’t they? What can we infer from that in this context?

Well, in many large organizations, they have realized the need for cross functional teams. The way that they approach it has been bring in a mix of the “right” folks from different capabilities – developers (DV), data scientists (DS), analysts (AN), testers (TS) and UX designers into a team. To me this works like a mixture – all capable elements, demonstrating individual brilliance with their own properties but not a cohesive brilliance or a unified set of properties.

So what is the change that is needed?

They need to create the environment for these elements (DV, DS …) to be able to come together on their own volition and fuse in as a team. When this happens, the organization will immensely benefit from the new capabilities (strengths) of this well-bonded team. This team will now behave like a compound. No matter from what angle you see this team, they will be able to bring the value of being a well fused team – with its own properties, which will be well different from the individual elements. Further, because of this fusion, you would not see it separating out and exposing the weakness of any one element, even under trying conditions.

If it’s so simple, why does it not happen easily?

  • The organization (and the larger it becomes) wants to identify the resources from the available pool (looking at individual capability) and put them together. They then want these elements to fuse together! This is a command and control approach to self organizing. You can very rarely create a compound by bringing in the available elements together.
  • The other reason is that we have all these rookies (light weight elements) and no team may want them. Nature again shows, that under the right conditions – the lightest of the elements can happily bind with the heavier element( s) to form a good stable compound. A positively charged lightweight (H+) resource can easily fuse with an existing heavyweight team (NO3) that is eagerly looking forward to the fusion. So the challenge for HR and resource managers is to help the elements to be charged the right way, and then the rest will happen.
  • Then there’s the eternal concern of my job or our jobs (for managers at various levels). The best of them will behave like catalysts. They will no longer be the heaviest element in the resulting compound, but they will still be very much needed, won’t they? Help them know that the catalyst will be valued even more now.

So, what could be the challenges of such an approach?

  • If  you still find some people (loose atoms) that never binds with the other atoms, it now becomes obvious that this atom is a misfit in the environment. So, it becomes essential to find the right environment – either internally or externally –  rather than force and create a mixture.
  • You may have to bring in pressure or raise/ lower the temperature do it – till the fusion happens. But if the compound is not stable after that in the normal conditions, then it is an exercise in futility. You are going to spend all your energy to maintain an artificial environment. Cut your losses and move ahead.
  • Some elements, left to themselves, when coming together in an environment could create an explosion. If it’s in the storming stage of the Tuckman model of development, that would be the norm before it starts to perform as a team. If it does not, you have learnt that these elements (however individually good), are not the right ones to form the compound.

In short, you need the right chemistry to form a stable self-organizing team. It is only when the elements find themselves naturally fitting you can benefit from the new molecular properties of the team. Otherwise, it will always remain a heterogeneous mixture.

In my opinion, the millennium workforce outperform when they feel the ability to choose and work with the people they prefer. So, the organizations that succeed with the millennium workforce are going to be the ones that can truly embrace this change. The others would fall behind soon.

As always, I look forward to your perspectives.