Project Practitioners > Self-organizing Commute

Self-organizing Commute

By Brandon Carlson

I was on my morning commute a couple of months back when I approached a rather busy intersection. I normally don't think too much about traffic but this time was different, what struck me was the fact that this intersection was a great example of a self-organizing team in action.

So how does an intersection exhibit the behavior of a self-organizing team? First a little background is in order. This intersection is right off of the interstate where it starts its life off as a single exit lane. As it approaches the stoplight the single lane divides, splitting into three lanes in order to support additional traffic. The problem is that the intersection is overloaded and there is just not enough capacity to handle the load of morning rush hour.

What I noticed is that the commuters, responding to the bottleneck created by the single lane, immediately drift into formation, two abreast, effectively utilizing the shoulders to increase the road's total capacity. Here I am at an intersection with 100 other commuters and I haven't spoken to any of them before. Somehow, however, I know what to do. I fall in line and proceed to work.

What is it about this scenario that inspires the self-organization? How do people that don't even know each other instinctively organize themselves to be more effective?

There are at least two factors to this mystery. First, the commuters are gathered around a common purpose. In this case each of the commuters is trying to get to work without having to sit in traffic. You can tell the person that doesn't share this purpose, he is the elderly man in his overalls and a John Deere trucker hat. He doesn't bother moving to one side of the road or other, there's no need, he doesn't share the same goal. Second, the commuters in our example have shared experiences with regards to driving in heavy traffic. We've all been stuck in a line of 50 cars at or near a dead stop, and we've all had that line of cars come up on us with as much advance warning as an earthquake. Through these shared experiences the group begins to value smooth traffic flow over staying within the boundaries of the single exit lane.

How do you ensure that traffic in your project flows smoothly in the face of apparent constraints? By tapping in to the collective wisdom of the team. Ensure that your team is working toward a shared goal. Do they even know the goal? If not, now is a good time to enlighten them. Have them talk to the customers in order to better understand their needs and build empathy with them. Equally important are the shared experiences. Invest in team building activities and involve everyone on the team when solving the problems and celebrating the successes.

Many Agile project managers and coaches speak of the self-organizing team, but speaking is not enough. Teams don't become self-organizing over night. What are you doing to build yours?

Related Links
Teams are a lot more likely to share common goals if they help establish a project vision. A really good kickoff meeting doesn't hurt either. Our Project Flexibility Matrix and ideas for brainstorming meetings can help your team see around corners.

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