Accountability and Self-Organizing Teams

October 26, 2010

We’ve made the transition to being a Scrum development shop, and this means that we have self-organizing teams. Product Owners determine product priorities (with input from some of us stakeholders) and articulate what needs to be done; each team determines how they will go about meeting those priorities, right down to how much work the team feels that it can deliver with quality.

This means that managers and project managers do not assign tasks or otherwise direct individuals and teams; the team makes its own determination about who will perform the work and how that work will be performed. Are we in a situation that if everyone is accountable, is no one accountable?

Not at all! As a manager, you do have one limitation: Because tasks aren’t being assigned, you can’t have the “I’m holding you accountable for completing this task” discussion, something that I wrote about being a bad idea in my previous post.

This doesn’t mean that accountability is absent, quite the contrary, in fact. Scrum – and Agile development in general – supports individuals and teams who are trusted, competent professionals who have a goal of continuous improvement. If you are in doubt, reflect on those attributes as you re-read the Principles behind the Agile Manifesto.

Scrum defines the job roles and protocols of team interaction and decision-making along with the boundaries that must be respected in order to support true team ownership and accountability. Honoring the principles of the Agile Manifesto and the practice of Scrum, teams should be autonomous, self-organizing, self-improving entities that are working to deliver value to the business through satisfying the priorities established by the Product Owner.

This is the basis for accountability with Agile teams. One key portion of accountability rests with management: Managers staff project teams, and must keep in mind the objectives and needs of the project so that the skill sets of those on the team are adequate.

Competency is relative:
  • Relative to the needs of the project.
  • Relative to the amount of money that you are willing to pay for specific competencies.
As such, competency-oriented components are a business decision and accountability is on management’s shoulders. Individuals and teams have a responsibility to improve their competencies as agreed upon with management, who in turn have a responsibility to maintain the desired levels of competency within the organization – and taking action to build or acquire talent to meet the demands of the business.

Other aspects of accountability are part and parcel of Scrum development. Since teams discuss and negotiate the work – and how much of it the team will absorb in a sprint – there is complete understanding of the work, automatic buy-in, and realistic expectations established. Teams have full authority to determine how to carry out their responsibilities. Daily stand-ups are a mechanism to managing and monitor the work that has been committed to by the team. And teams reflect on their work at the end of every sprint, conducting retrospectives and determining how they can improve.

Interestingly enough, while Scrum defines the ground rules for managing and monitoring the work as well as guiding the team towards self-improvement, teams can make mistakes that cast doubt on their accountability. It takes training, time, practice, monitoring, and reminding to get it right. Next post, I’ll discuss some of ways that we’ve been challenged.