Agile without anarchy

THE AGILE | Project Manager

Self-organizing teams should be embraced, not feared.



I've spoken to numerous executives and project practitioners who worry that agile's dedication to self-organized teams leads to anarchy. Or worse, the teams develop a do-whatever-we-want attitude. Accordingly, the thought of self-organized teams can be scary to many organizations.

But in the world of agile, self-organized teams are a comforting reality because they allow members to focus on the work and they let you, the project manager, focus on problem-solving.

When organizations consider the value of self-organizing teams, they have little to fear.


A few progressive, successful companies allow employees to hire and fire each other or determine their own reviews, promotions and salaries. But that kind of organization simply isn't the norm, and I‘m glad it isn't. The more time my project team must spend on organizational support, the less time they can spend on project work.

Instead, agile approaches encourage team members to strike a balanced approach by sorting out their own daily assignments but leaning on their higher-ups to take care of organizational work.


In my view, the traditional project manager works too much overtime as the bottleneck for every single decision within every team.

But in agile, project teams take over more of the internal decisions. Agile practitioners typically work with one or more subteams of 10 or fewer people, and the people within these smaller groups are best positioned to assign activities and make detailed technical decisions internal to that team.

This way, analysts directly explain to testers what is needed, testers directly tell engineers what's broken, and engineers decide how to help.

That allows you, the person in the typical project management position, more free time, which can be used to tackle the bigger questions that span multiple teams, such as “Are these projects still strategically aligned?”


In addition to calling for self-organizing teams, the Manifesto for Agile Development gives us a concrete process for making them a reality:

  1. Build teams around motivated individuals. In assessing teams across the world, I have come to the conclusion that attitude determines aptitude, that heart trumps head. I‘m not alone. Management experts such as Jim Collins and Daniel Pink emphasize that getting the right people is more important than anything else. Knowledge and skills can be developed, but no amount of bonuses or reprimands will turn a poor performer into a star. Better to have a handful of reliable people than an army of zombies.
  2. Provide the needed environment and support. People can't just be thrown into a room. They must have the tools and facilities to be as productive as possible. They must have access to answers related to the business problem. Your job is to make those things happen, perhaps by hunting for more budget or by escalating issues to senior management.
  3. Trust them to get the job done. How much you trust your team is a great test of how well you've done prepping them. If an agile project manager believes team members will take three-hour siestas when unwatched, then the wrong people have been staffed. If there is concern that technical mistakes will be made, then the agile project manager did not provide the mentoring or training to minimize that risk. And if no one in the organization believes the project team can get the job done, then the agile project manager hasn't completed the first two steps.

As long as you, the project manager, do your job, then there is nothing to fear about self-organizing teams. PM



Jesse Fewell, CST, PMI-ACP, PMP, is a founder of the PMI Agile Community of Practice and participated in the development of Software Extension to A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) Fifth Edition. He can be reached at




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