5 Challenges Facing Self-Organizing Teams

Most organizations that employ agile ways of working, like Scrum, focus on self-organizing teams. In these organizations, operational decisions are delegated to teams, whose members have the most detailed knowledge of the consequences and practicalities associated with those decisions.

Self-organization is a bottom-up, emergent property of a team, so there is no external dominating force applying top-down command and control. In other words, management cannot just say to a team, “go forth and self-organize!” There are real challenges that organizations and teams face when attempting to self-organize. I will address the five most common that I see.

The Five Challenges

The five most common challenges to self-organizing teams are:

  • Some people prefer to be told what to do
  • Dominant personalities can overwhelm the team
  • Some companies prefer a single authoritarian
  • Understanding the boundaries
  • Perception that it takes longer to make decisions

Let’s discuss each.

Some People Prefer to Be Told What to Do

There are people who, either by their nature, or through organizational conditioning, prefer or expect to be told what to do. They show up to work in the morning and their managers tell them what to work on that day.

You can imagine how it might be a bit unnerving for these people when they are now expected to work on a self-organizing team. When that change occurs and they ask their managers what to work on, they get told: “Go figure that out for yourself!” In my experience some people have a very difficult time making this transition.

Empathetic coaching can help people feel more comfortable making their own decisions. Also, seeing other team members absorb decision-making responsibility can help the more hesitant people overcome this challenge.

Dominant Personalities Can Overwhelm the Team

It is difficult for teams to self-organize and make decisions in the presence of one or more dominant personalities. You have likely seen the person on the team who will assert his opinion right over the top of anyone else’s. This is the person whose actions will cause other team members to avoid engaging in useful discussions.

Teams will have a difficult time self-organizing in this situation. Sometimes coaching the dominant individual to be more of a team player will help. Other times we resort to having everyone express their opinions in writing before conversation begins. With the latter approach, more introverted team members get a chance to be heard. In the presence of disruptive dominant personalities, we need to take some form of action or self-organization will continue to be compromised.

Some Companies Prefer a Single Authoritarian

We’ve all heard the expression that “If everyone is in charge, then no one is in charge.” I have worked with companies that believe one person should ultimately be in charge and therefore held accountable for the team’s results. This person might be a manager, a tech lead, or dare I say, a ScrumMaster. In such organizations it is virtually impossible for teams to self-organize.

Let’s take the ScrumMaster as an example. The ScrumMaster is supposed to be a servant leader who provides Scrum process leadership in service of the other team members. Imagine if we told the ScrumMaster of a team that she will be held fully accountable for the results of the team. The next time the team needs to make an important decision, what if the ScrumMaster doesn’t agree with that decision? We can imagine she might say something like: “Hey, it’s my neck that’s on the line, not yours. So, we’re going to do it my way.” I can’t imagine a better way of killing self-organization than having the ScrumMaster dictate decisions for the team.

This challenge needs to be addressed at a higher organizational level than the team.

Understanding Boundaries

In most organizations, managers decide on strategic work, and (usually) decide on which teams are needed and who will be on each team.

In the picture below, the managers define the sandboxes (products or projects) as well as who gets to play in each sandbox (the teams). The teams are supposed to self-organize inside their sandbox.

A sandbox provides the boundaries in which a team is expected to self-organize. In the picture, the sandbox boundaries look sharp and obvious. In practice, they can be far less clear and that is the challenge. To be effective at self-organizing, each team needs clarity on what is in and out of scope for their decision making.

To overcome this issue, organizational leaders should make all such boundaries clear and be available to help provide additional clarity when edge situations arise. It is not just the team members who can struggle. Leaders may struggle to know how much autonomy to give their teams while feeling comfortable they are still driving the strategic direction. 

Perception That It Takes Longer to Make Decisions

In some organizations there is a perception that self-organizing teams will take longer to make decisions than more traditional teams with an empowered leader. This perception can be a significant impediment to setting up self-organizing teams.

I have worked with organizations that have the misguided belief that self-organization means that everyone must be involved with every decision. Of course, this need not be the case. Self-organizing teams will determine the most effective and efficient ways to make decisions. In my experience, when the person or people who have the best knowledge of the situation are empowered to act, they can be thoughtfully decisive (i.e., fast, and effective).

On the other hand, if all decisions must be vetted or finalized by even a very capable and experienced leader, then such a person can easily become the bottleneck. Furthermore, such a process would deny team members the opportunity to build and flex their own decision-making muscles.

When I find myself in a conversation about decision-making speed, sometimes a logical argument for why self-organizing teams will not suffer this problem is sufficient. Other times, we just need to run the experiment. Let’s not assume that decision-making speed will be better or worse, rather let’s see how well a self-organizing team performs and base our next actions on that data.


Self-organizing teams are a powerful unit for completing valuable work. There are challenges that must be overcome by organizations wishing to employ such teams.

In Scrum organizations, it is often the ScrumMaster who will assist with overcoming these issues. If you want to explore this topic deeper, as well as many other ScrumMaster-related topics, please consider attending an Innolution Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) Class.

What are your thoughts? Have you experienced challenges with establishing self-organizing teams? Leave your comments below.

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