28 September 2010

Self directed teams

One of the teams I ‘manage’ has been fairly consistent (i.e. mostly the same people) over the last 3 years and we are now in our third project together. They are a lovely bunch of people and a well integrated team. It was tough getting to this state, but it appears to be worth it.

Here’s the thing; on this last project I have given them a one line goal, a deadline and a list of stakeholders. I barely talk to them except to get a weekly progress update.

They are on track and making decisions about what should be in and out of scope, and where quality can be flexed to accommodate more or less features. About once a month they are coming to me to ask for assistance in clearing an external impediment.

I love managing them because it’s almost completely automatic. I get to focus my attention on the other teams I am working with which need more guidance and support.

This is an example of a real self directed team working on real enterprise software projects.


  1. Since you gave them a direction (a goal, and a deadline) this would IMHO not qualify as a self-directed team. It is a self-organizing team, not a self-directing team. A self-directing team would define its own goal.

    About the differences:

  2. I'm with Jurgen on this one ...

  3. i take it this means you returned from vacation and everything was running as smoothly as when you left?

  4. Anonymous1:08 am

    Self-organizing or self-directed seems like a nuance...your point comes across. I think it would be interesting to read about how you think the team got to this point. What did it take?

  5. Anonymous12:56 pm

    So Craig, how do they get their direction?

    Self direction, means the team discovers their own direction - SELF.
    Self organizing is not a nuance, it means how they work among themselves, their roles and responsibilities are self-created. This is a good thing in general no matter where the direction comes from.
    But the notion of "self directed," means no one outside the team directs their work.

  6. Self managing teams and self organization teams are different. And being accurate and specific on this blog is also important but not always consistently done.

    Thanks gentlemen for the challenge.

    Let me respond in three parts.

    1. Fiji was great thanks and I am much better rested.

    2. I understand that self-managed and self-directed are different terms with different meanings but at the same time, nothing happens in a vacuum.

    I read Jurgen’s presentation and when I read it first time round found myself nodding along, but now want to agree with Mark, that it is a nuance and the meaning comes from context.

    I’ll elaborate the details in my third point below, but in the enterprise context there is always a set of contextual constraints.

    You need to be working on ‘approved’ work items and can’t just go off and do whatever you like. (At least most of us can’t.) And it needs to be something related to the business you work for. (Avionics software at Mars Food? I don’t think so.)

    I do think the team are directing themselves as well as organising and managing themselves. They’re doing it in a context of choosing to come here and work on the things that are important to this organisation.

    3. The story:
    Our last project was winding up. A new project being delivered by a different team in a related business area was starting. Our team was operating well. I pre-checked with the boss (i.e. the money) and got consent for the following;

    Me: So, team, you guys are really operating well together

    Team: Yeah, thanks. It’s a shame the project had to come to an end.

    Me: Well, there are a few options for you all.

    Let me run through them. (1) you can hit the project team members bench and see what comes up next, (2) you can pitch a project to management, (3) some of you could join the application management team, or (4) there’s this new program starting up and they would really benefit from a data cleansing and migration project.

    (This last option will mean that team have less to do and be able to deliver nominally cheaper and faster, although in reality we’ll pick up the tab for the work. It’s all one company.)

    Team: Well, we really like the way we’re working together, let’s give the data project a run.

    Me: Okay. Let me check Project X’s release pan and pass back their launch date. That’ll give you an idea of timeframes you’ll need to work to. Bye.

    Thanks for challenging me on the sloppy post. I hope this clarifies my position. And I'm interested in your further thoughts.

  7. Anonymous1:23 am

    Thanks for the additional information. I do recognize that there is a difference between self-directed vs. self-organizing, apologies. I guess in the day-to-day, it is more interesting to me to learn how teams are functioning effectively, as you described Craig, regardless of the term. Do you think the chief characteristic was great people, lots of time invested by yourself in the team, or something else?

  8. Mark,

    It was a balance between the team opening up within a trusted environment and me working to provide one (in a challenging corporate context.)

    It took a lot of time and work from all of us, and a couple of personality issues held us back.