Self-organized teams: can they be influenced?

What does self-organization mean

Self-organization does not mean that the team can decide autonomously about its goals. It also does not mean in every case that the team could decide on its composition.

Self-organization means that the team determines how it reacts to its environment. And only when they have this opportunity, a group of people forms into a team.

The environment of the team, however, can be influenced by the manager / leader / ScrumMaster. This is nothing that cannot be made transparent and has nothing to do with unfair manipulation, which is by no means to be recommended here.

Systems theory

Systems theory in biology (essential names are Maturana and Varela) describes the self-organization of living systems with the main terms

  • Homeostasis – self-organization, the effort of a system to achieve internal stability
  • Autopoiesis – self-creation/self-generation, the process of emergence and evolution of a system.

In sociological systems theory (the most prominent representative is probably Niklas Luhmann), this approach is further developed and applied to a wide range of application areas:

  • Differentiated functional systems in society are described
  • An important concept is always a guiding difference system / environment, i.e. the definition of how the inner life and processes of a system differ from the outside world
  • The form of internal processes, always a kind of communication

An important aspect still concerns the controllability of a system (Förster):

  • Observation and intervention from the outside create a new system involving the observer

This almost sounds like a sociological kind of quantum theory.

And a practically important point still comes with the description of loops (Bateson, Watzlawik):

  • Those who fail first adjust their approach (feedback)
  • He can also come to the conclusion that situation/strategy/goal do not fit together
  • This can lead to the reflection that there is something wrong with learning
  • This is known as double loop learning: thinking about how learning can be improved – this breaks thinking patterns and has a self-directing effect on a system.

Complex adaptive systems

In the Anglo-Saxon area, another description method is more popular: Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS). These describe

  • A dynamic network of actors acting in parallel and reacting to each other
  • Control is decentralized
  • The behavior of the system is made by a large set of decisions that are made continuously and in parallel by the actors

Examples of such complex systems are

  • Motorist
  • Beehive
  • The spectators who want to go to a stadium for a soccer match
  • A software team

Control and incentives

In each of these systems, there are controls and incentives

  • Drivers: Drive in the direction of your destination and stay on the right side of the road.
  • Beehive: Produces honey
  • The spectators: buy a ticket, go through the entrance control and then go to your seat
  • A software team: goals and incentives can be set by managers and leaders … or by team members

Practical models

Practical models described approaches for giving a team specific impetus to develop in a particular direction based on these findings:

  • CDE: Containers, Differences and Exchanges by Glenda Eoyang
  • Seven Levers (Seven Levers) by Philip Anderson

In the Scrum community, these approaches were popularized by Mike Cohn in various presentations.

The CDE model

The CDE model describes

  • Container, i.e. the environment
  • Differences, differences and diversity between members of a team
  • Transforming Exchanges, i.e., the interactions or exchange of information between team members.

The CDE model can be used by intervening in these elements:


  • Increase or decrease the size of teams
  • Limiting or extending the boundary of responsibility
  • Change team memberships
  • Create new teams


  • Do not demand harmony
  • Creativity needs tension
  • Silent rejection is worse than intensive discussion that may lead to a change in behavior
  • Ask hard questions
  • Require the team to develop responses

Transforming Exchanges

  • Encourage communication between teams
  • Who is silent, but should speak?
  • Bring people into the exchange or take them out
  • Change reporting relationships
  • Put people in other places / roles
  • Encourage learning

Anderson’s path of self-organization

Anderson makes heavy use of biological terms in describing teams, saying self-organization doesn’t just happen once

  • A team is never finished
  • The team continuously responds and adapts to its environment

By observing how the team (re)organizes itself, you can influence the path of that adjustment – but you can’t control it without destroying the team as a functioning system.

We can consider this as an evolution of the team.

Evolution is the result of three elements: Variation, selection, retention

Using the example of a giraffe, this means

  • Variation: a mutation leads to a longer neck
  • Selection: The long neck leads to a competitive advantage and a higher chance of survival and reproduction
  • Retained: the mutation is passed on to the offspring

Anderson’s idea now is to apply this concept to teams, and he identifies seven levers to do so. The seven levers for influencing team evolution are.

  1. Selection of the external environment
  2. Define performance
  3. Managing meaning
  4. Selection of people
  5. Reconfiguring the network
  6. Development of targeted selection systems
  7. Supply energy to the system

1. selection of the external environment

Not only the physical environment

  • In which industry we work
  • The company’s approach to innovation
  • What projects are we working on and how many are being introduced into the organization
  • Expectations about multitasking and focus

2. defining performance

The characteristics that help us survive tend to be retained

Managers and leaders send signals about which features should be retained

What signals does your organization send about the relative importance of short- and long-term performance?

What signals are sent when

  • Trainings are offered
  • Work at a sustainable speed is possible
  • Employees have time to try out wild ideas
  • Meeting a deadline is not more important than unmaintainable code

3. managing meaning

Individuals in a complex system respond to signals

  • Bees respond to “danger” signals

Conductors can send signals into the system

  • E.g. put the team in contact with the customer

… or keep signals out

Meaning often emerges from stories, rituals and myths that are told

  • “We will be profitable this year”
  • “Our GF checks every morning at 6h which cars are already there”.

4. selection of people

Who is a member of a team naturally influences its self-organization

  • Adjusting team size, work location, background, experience, skepticism, decision making, gender, motivation, …
  • Some people act like glue from the cohesion of the team

5. reconfiguring the network

Communication channels can be more important than the specific individuals

  • Formal
  • Informal

One can introduce or exclude new information flows

  • Other teams, team division
  • Experts
  • Customers

6. development of targeted selection systems

Variation, selection, retention

Waiting for the market to act takes too long and is risky

Companies develop targeted selection systems

  • Compensation systems
  • Retrospectives
  • Google’s 20 percent rule

7. supply energy

If a system does not receive additional energy, entropy sets in

Make sure the team has a clear positive goal


  • Team Chartering, Visible Vision, Discuss Press Releases, Elevator Statement.


  • Learning, important role in the company, working in even better projects


  • Customer visits, training, conferences

In preparing for my seminar, “Coaching Self-Organized Teams,” I again came across a set of lectures by Mike Cohn. That’s where I got my idea for compiling this description.


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