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. Nor does it mean in every case that the team can 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, you can influence as a manager / leader / ScrumMaster. This is nothing that cannot be made transparent and has nothing to do with unfair manipulation, which is in no way to be recommended here.

Systems Theory

The 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, 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 the inner processes, always a kind of communication

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

  • Observation and intervention from 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 down patterns of thinking and has a self-directing effect on a system.

Complex adaptive systems

In the Anglo-Saxon world, 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 decentralised
  • 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
  • Hive
  • The spectators who want to go to a football match in a stadium
  • A software team

Control and incentives

There are controls and incentives in each of these systems

  • 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 on how to give a team specific impulses to develop in a certain direction on the basis of these findings:

  • CDE: Containers, Differences and Exchanges by Glenda Eoyang
  • 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 scope of responsibility
  • Change team memberships
  • Create new teams


  • Do not demand harmony
  • Creativity needs tension
  • Silent rejection is worse than intensive discussion, which may lead to a change in behavior.
  • Ask tough questions
  • Require the team to develop answers

Transforming Exchanges

  • Encourage communication between teams
  • Who is silent, but should speak?
  • Put people in 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 reacts and adapts to its environment

By watching 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 look at this as an evolution of the team.

Evolution is the result of three elements: variation, selection, maintenance

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. Defining performance
  3. managing meaning
  4. Selection of persons
  5. Reconfiguring the network
  6. Development of targeted selection systems
  7. Energize the system

1. Selection of the external environment

Not only the physical environment

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

2. defining performance

The features 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-term and long-term performance?

What signals are sent when

  • Trainings are offered
  • Work at a sustainable pace 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 react to “danger” signals

Conductors can send signals into the system

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

… or keep signals out

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

  • “We’re going to be profitable this year”
  • “Our GF checks every morning at 6h, which cars are already there”.

4. Selection of persons

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 concrete individuals

  • Formal
  • Informal

You 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. Hence my idea for compiling this description.

On Key

The VSM Quick Guide: the model

The introduction to the series on Jon Walker’s VSM quick guide. It describes the simplified VSM vocabulary as used in the rest of the steps.