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Self-managing: Scrum’s most misunderstood phrase

Updated: May 25, 2023


Self-managing is Scrum's most misunderstood phrase.

According to the Scrum Guide, Scrum Teams are “self-managing, meaning they internally decide who does what, when, and how.”


It seems straightforward. And yet, this simple phrase is one of the most commonly misunderstood in the Scrum Guide.


Self-managing doesn’t mean that the Scrum Team — or the Scrum Master — is all-powerful. (Sorry, not sorry!) It means that the organization gives the Scrum Team the mandate to deliver value according to the product vision and goal within a set of guardrails.


Why do Scrum teams need to be self-managing?


Scrum is founded on empiricism.
Scrum is founded on empiricism. The three pillars of empiricism are transparency, inspection and adaptation.

At the foundation of Scrum is empiricism, which means making decisions based on what is known. The three pillars of empiricism are transparency, inspection and adaptation. “Adaptation becomes more difficult when the people involved are not empowered or self-managing. A Scrum Team is expected to adapt the moment it learns anything new through inspection.” (the 2020 Scrum Guide)


In short, Scrum Teams need to be empowered to adapt quickly as soon as they learn new information affecting the product they are creating. If they can’t make adjustments, it can delay or block the team’s ability to deliver value to the organization.


Also, because Scrum Teams are cross-functional (meaning they have all the skills they need to deliver value), they are in the best position to decide how best to get the work done. Team members are closest to the work and understand it best. According to the Harvard Business Review, “Outstanding performance in the development of new, complex products is achieved when teams, as small and self-organizing units of people, are fed with objectives, not with tasks.” (The New New Product Development Game. January 1986. Harvard Business Review.)


So, self-management means that the Scrum Team decides how to work together and which member should perform a given task. They decide how to turn the Product Backlog into a usable product, and they have ownership of delivering high-quality, valuable increments of the product.


Scrum Teams that own the problem of how to deliver their work realize better results than those that do not.


The limits of self-management


The Scrum Guide identifies certain limits on self-organization, and the organization also sets guardrails within which the team operates.



The Scrum Framework


The events, artifacts and accountabilities of the Scrum framework.

Image re-created with permission from Jordan Job. See original version here: Scrum Diagram - The Scrum Framework captured in Simple One Picture (jordanjob.me)


The Scrum framework provides the boundaries within which Scrum Team members work together to deliver value.


For example, the Scrum framework includes three accountabilities that guide how Scrum Team members interact. There are five events that provide opportunities for inspection and adaptation and three artifacts that improve transparency. Each of the three Scrum artifacts embodies a commitment to which the Scrum Team adheres (e.g., the Product Backlog and Product Goal).



Scrum teams work together towards a common product goal.

The Product Goal serves as a target for the Scrum Team to plan against; the Scrum Team commits to the Product Goal and is required to deliver a done increment each Sprint which meets the Sprint Goal.


The more a Scrum Team adheres to the framework’s limits, the more likely it will deliver increased value to the organization.



Organizational Guardrails

Organizations provide additional self-management guardrails. How restrictive these guardrails are depends on the parent organization’s needs, the team’s experience, and the product delivery environment. Some common organizational boundaries include human resources policies about vacation, sick time, and protocols for respectful interactions with co-workers.


Organizations may also provide the Product Owner with a budget and boundaries around team size or composition depending on the product’s requirements.


Scrum teams have guard rails within which they must operate.


Supervision and accountability still apply

Some wrongly assume the team is entirely unsupervised or lacks accountability.


Self-managing does not mean that Scrum Teams:

  • Have no managers or leaders

  • Have to perform their own HR functions

  • Don’t need to comply with standards

  • Can override the organizational Definition of Done

  • Can modify the Scrum framework itself

  • Can run with scissors in the office

  • Are free to do whatever they want


Instead, the team has the power and authority to manage their work and make decisions about how to achieve the goals set out in the Sprint. Teams set their Sprint Goals, determine how to use their skills and resources best, and identify and remove obstacles in their progress. The Scrum Master and Product Owner provide oversight and support, but the team is ultimately responsible for delivering a Done increment that meets the Sprint Goal every Sprint.



Conclusion

Self-management is an essential component to success as a Scrum Team. The more teams can own the delivery approach for their work, the better they can adapt to changing business conditions. But self-management doesn’t mean that the Scrum Team is all-powerful. Self-management works best within limits set by the organization and the Scrum framework. These limits improve the Scrum Team’s focus and ability to deliver value to the organization.


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Rebel Scrum is hosting the Scrum day conference in Madison Wisconsin.

Join us to engage with those at the forefront of Scrum and uncover new ways to boost human creativity to deliver more value.


Scrum Day features thoughtful discussions and short, interactive training on the Scrum framework. There is no better, more affordable opportunity to learn from Scrum experts and colleagues.


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