I always adopt a practical attitude towards agile & scrum. I am more concerned with customer collaboration, small/continuous release, incremental development than following scrum rules strictly.

I also find that some level of a self-managing/self-organizing team will always emerge if doing agile process (whatever "agile" means here). By self-organizing I mean team members will decide who does what, how to collaborate by themselves.

How to manage the team effectively on such self-managing team? Does the developer management's job/responsibility shift in some way for the self-organizing team compared to non-self-organizing team? I don't think this is a vague or pointless question, e.g. even though scrum is silent on manager's role most of time, scrum.org has an article like "How to Lead Self-Managing Teams?".

I am sure whether being on a self-organizing team or not, the developer manager's job will always include removing impediments, mentoring/coaching team members. Just like The Role of Leaders on a Self-Organizing Team said "There is more to leading a self-organizing team than buying pizza and getting out of the way."

I am hoping to see answers from someone who experiences this challenge. I searched the SE website and I can only find this Q&A Does a mature agile team requires any management? that has something in common with my question. But still they are quite different questions.

I realize I may need to provide a definition for developer manager in case that may also cause some disagreement. I find this article "Development managers vs. scrum masters" from atlassian, in a way the article has answered my question.

BTW, Harvard Business Review published an article called "What Great Managers Do Daily" said "Our data is a start, highlighting some traits of good managers that are actionable on a daily basis. " On daily basis, but how to do on a self-organizing team? This article is one of reasons I asked the question. Apparently when they did the research and published the article they didn't have the concept of self-organizing team in minds.

--- update ---

I come across this article "Why Agile rarely works in the Enterprise", which I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in my question.

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    What do you mean by "people management?" Human Resources? Upper management? Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 13:18
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    Supervisors? Please give us more information about what you mean by "people management." Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 13:19
  • @GregBurghardt my first response would be team management (as my whole question is about "team") but if I assume (I could be wrong) then someone would ask what do you mean by "team management" So why bother. Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 14:09
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    @Qjulang often questions get closed and downvoted here not because they were bad ideas but asked in a way that causes problems. You're being asked to edit because we suspect that with some work you could create a well received question. Please don't let 3 downvotes discourage you. I know I had to take my fair share of lumps. Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 16:29
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    I'm sorry. I'm really struggling to understand what the question is here. This is a genuinely interesting topic, but I think the specific question is lost. Unless it is just "how do you manage a self-organizing team" which might be too broad for anything short of a book.
    – Daniel
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 15:16

2 Answers 2


I first created truly "self-directed" teams in 1995, teams with no team leader or manager involved in daily operations. Now I operate Full Scale agile (yes, lower-case "a"), and I had an earlier consulting practice on teamwork development based on scientific research. Your question has literally filled books, including one I wrote (but now incorporate into my websites)!

In general, I believe Scrum organizations misunderstand the psychology of teams. If a team has a full-time organizer, they are not "self-organizing!" When someone has a degree of assigned hierarchy--as a full-time Scrum Master does--team members' brains are hard-wired to give some deference to that person and filter their opinions. And the designated leader is hard-wired to expect that to some degree.

Hence I train teams to rotate the Facilitator role (my preferred term). Or if the client already has designated SMs, I train them to manage at least three, and preferably four teams at once. Otherwise, an ethical Facilitator is almost certain to do things he/she/they should not be doing for the team to be fully empowered, because the Facilitator is trying to justify their pay.

There's a lot more to the process of converting to a truly self-organizing team. It takes time and effort, but there is plenty of evidence dating back decades that it pays off in the long run. My full approach is here (free and open source): Self-Directed Agile.

Even if you don't go to full self-direction, you can hand off many of the administrative decisions, from hiring through performance appraisals (the linked section has a checklist). Then the manager can become a servant leader focused on coaching instead of controlling; making sure team members have what they need, including information, instead of telling them what they can have; persuasion instead of commanding; listening instead of telling; and so on.

Feel free to tag me if you have questions.

Edits to answer comment questions:

First, be aware that self-directed teams that handle their own hiring, performance appraisals, etc., have existed for more than 70 years, with evidence they are more effective if properly formed. You can disagree with doing it with your teams, but they are historical facts!

HBR articles are not always based on research. That said, you're right, daily actions by a manager do have value. But two major reviews of the literature on teams (cited below) showed that a manager's biggest impact within a team or project lifecycle is at four points:

  • Pre-start (how the team is selected and formed),
  • Start (how the team is organized),
  • Mid-point (when there tends to be a readjustment of practices), and
  • End (learning lessons and preparing for the next project).

The daily actions should center on the types of I mentioned before ("coaching instead of controlling," etc.). The literature on "servant leadership" can tell you more about that.

As for Scrum, I have found it to be an extremely effective method for improving measurable team performance if implemented as a shortcut instead of a permanent solution--like any specific management practice. All of the complaints I see/hear about Scrum come from four root causes: false adoption (using Scrum words without really changing, like replacing a team leader with a full-time Scrum Master); incomplete adoption (you have to learn how the pieces fit together before dropping any); inappropriate application (for example, using Scrum where Kanban is more appropriate); and refusal to allow adaptation after it is mastered.

Additions for subsequent comments:

All of your objections indicate failures at those Pre-start and Start phases (by your employer, not you personally!). For example, the teams should be cross-functional--business people and tech people on the same team. You have to do Scrum (or any other formal method) as described before changing it, to fully understand the impact of those later changes. A great team cannot be created without breaking many of the common rules by which teams are structured (per the Self-Directed Agile section I linked above). And so on. In short, your objections are based on poor team structure or teamwork implementation. All of the concepts I have presented are backed by decades of research and successful practice in the real world.

Sources: Kozlowski, S., and D. Ilgen (2006), “Enhancing the Effectiveness of Work Groups and Teams,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 7(3):77.; Hackman, R., and N. Katz (2010), “Group Behavior and Performance,” in Fiske, S., D. Gilbert, and G. Lindzey (eds.), Handbook of Social Psychology (195th ed.), Wiley: New York.

  • Hi I have quite some question I would like to discuss, e.g. the Harvard Business Review article I quote said "some traits of good managers that are actionable on a daily basis" but if "teams with no team leader or manager involved in daily operations" how does managers action on daily basis ? Commented Aug 27, 2021 at 1:39
  • Another comment is I am not convinced a "fully" self-organizing/self-managing, e.g. I will disagree with your words "hand off hiring through performance appraisals", my another question about agile/scrum demonstrate my doubt softwareengineering.stackexchange.com/questions/410482/… Commented Aug 27, 2021 at 2:04
  • Good questions, @Qiulang! I edited my answer to address these. Commented Aug 27, 2021 at 14:01
  • One of main reasons I am not fully convinced self-organizing team is I have experienced, from time to time, that good/tech-savvy developers are not necessarily business-savvy ones. Sometimes they will focus on perfecting their technical solution too much without realizing we have a product to deliver in the end. Other times it is a cross-function feature that needs coordination, especially each team may have its own priority/schedule. Of course it is easy to say, coaching them, being a servant leader. But the reality from my experience is those are the times dev manager need to step in. Commented Aug 30, 2021 at 2:21
  • The other reason is also from my own experience, throughout my whole career, I seldom work with a "great" team, I have always work with some ordinary team. Of course I hoped/tried to make my team become a "great" team but I didn't. So I always find some level of "intervene", "command/control" is necessary. For example I engage in design review/code review from time to time to make sure the quality of our product. Commented Aug 30, 2021 at 3:57

How to manage the team effectively on such self-managing team?

By empowering the team and creating a good culture for the team to operate in.

Partly that is via traditional staffing duties. The manager makes sure that the team has enough people, people with the right sort of skills, the right balance of personalities and background, etc. They also make sure that people that aren't carrying their weight, are disruptive, or otherwise a drag on the team are let go.

Partly, that is via influence. They organize the team, and help the team come up with ground rules for interacting, decision making, accountability and so on. Some of those things might be done by members of the team naturally, and some of those things might be done because the manager delegates them. My team for example uses a directly responsible individual model for decision making. The person doing the work is the decision maker, and others may only advise them. The manager helps put that in position and to keep folks honest.

And partly, they do it by providing air cover. The rest of the org rarely is self-directed teams, and will often try to convert the team away from it. The manager can interface with the rest of the org so the team can focus on the work at hand. Again, members of the team might help naturally or because of delegation, but the manager is the one responsible for it.

Does the developer management's job/responsibility shift in some way for the self-organizing team compared to non-self-organizing team?

Yes, in general a manager needs to do more project management when the team is not self-organizing. What the tasks are, who is doing them, etc. That tends to be the focus of the "self-directing" descriptor.

  • Hi, I am not fully convinced of scrum even though I have run scrum for many years. My other question softwareengineering.stackexchange.com/questions/410482/… shows one of the problems I experienced. The management question I raised here is another concern I have. Of course I understand they are the hard questions to answer. For example it is easy to say "by empowering, being a servant leader, etc." But how, especially on the daily basis? Anyway, thanks for answering my question. Commented Aug 30, 2021 at 14:00
  • How specifically on a daily basis depends on the team and the situation they’re in. There are fewer algorithms or processes for people work.
    – Telastyn
    Commented Aug 30, 2021 at 15:20
  • I jus read “The Pragmatic Programmer” 2nd edition, the author added tip 84 "Maintain Small, Stable Teams". I got the feeling that without a manager/leader, a self-managing team won't be able to do what the author mentioned in tip 84. At least won't be able to do it effectively. Commented Sep 3, 2021 at 6:59
  • I carefully compared what has changed between 1st edition and 2nd edition regrading the chapter Pragmatic Teams and found that the 2nd edition added a section called "SCHEDULE YOUR KNOWLEDGE PORTFOLIO", which is a task I feel should be carried out by a designed leader instead of the self-managing team. Commented Sep 3, 2021 at 9:09

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