Software Creation Mystery -

Self Organization: The Army vs. Jim Highsmith

Surprisingly, Jim Highsmith, respected agile guru, argues against one of the core agile principles of self organization, associating it with anarchy. On the contrary, surprisingly again, the Army experts, Don Vandergriff and George Reed, embrace ideas of adaptability and decentralization in traditionally command-oriented military units.

Jim Highsmith says:

“I’ve been thinking recently that the term “self-organizing” has outlived its usefulness in the agile community and needs to be replaced. While self-organizing is a good term, it has, unfortunately, become confused with anarchy in the minds of many. Why has this occurred? Because there is a contingent within the agile community that is fundamentally anarchist at heart and it has latched onto the term self-organizing because it sounds better than anarchy.”

Army experts say:

“A culture of adaptability is one that accepts a lack of absolute control over events on and off the battlefield. Implementation requires revisiting mission orders or trust tactics. It necessitates raising the bar in the education, training and coaching of leaders and soldiers. It seems trite to suggest that an adaptive institution will reward those who, when the need arises, act without waiting for orders, but this also necessitates a climate that is supportive of those who act and fail to achieve stellar results. Instead of seeking perfection or optimum solutions, operators will find a solution that works locally and then exploit those results as a continual evolution facilitated by an organization adept at receiving and communicating such information.”

The modern Army faces challenges that demand from soldiers quick decision making on spot and reaction to unpredictable situations while keeping ethical reasoning and holding to the Army goals and values. Don Vandergriff and George Reed are confident that only small adaptive and learning units could handle such tasks – large, bureaucratic structures, with rigid lines of authority, are inherently slow to respond and adapt.

Jim Highsmith is a prominent advocate of adaptability, his book Agile Project Management is one of my favorite. But rejecting concept of self-organization he dismisses the essence of adaptive and learning agile teams. Certainly, self organization is not for every team, project or company, but removing the concept from Agile world is too radical step. Achieving the state of self organization should be a goal for any software development team – it is the most effective leadership style. Suggested Light Touch Leadership is not the best style, but only a stage in achieving true self-organization.

Why self organization is the best style? There are two main perspectives: theory of complex systems and human psychology.
Theory of complex systems shows that self-organized systems:

  • better in selecting optimal state and local decisions
  • robust
  • effectively adapt to environment and use feedback loops
  • often come up with emergent and unexpected solutions
  • self-regulated and better cope with perturbations

Human psychology aspect adds that self-organized teams:

  • more responsible for end results, self-disciplined and self-driven
  • avoid dependency on the formal leader qualities
  • motivated, initiative and willing to act
  • enjoy work more
  • better insured against groupthink, conformity and diffusion of responsibility
  • not shifting judgment and decisions to others, better in finding alternative and balancing options
  • every member is in charge, ready to step in as a leader and have incentive to develop leadership skills

A self-organized team is possible when people carry shared purpose, principles and values. They support and respect each other. And they want to succeed.

Jim, don’t take away from us concept of self organization. It is not anarchy, but the highest form of the software team organization, which I wish every software team could experience and achieve.

No More Self-Organizing Teams, Jim Highsmith
No More Self-Organizing Teams. Not. An open letter to Jim Highsmith from Tobias
Old Dogs and New Tricks: Setting the Tone For Adaptability, Don Vandergriff and George Reed

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