Self Organization

Self-Organizing Teams

"The best ideas and initiatives emerge from self-organizing teams."

On the few occasions in school when we actually get together, we tend to do something that reduces our effectiveness: we team according to structure rather than style. Instead of working with the people we work best with, we end up working with the people at our grade level or in subject area. This is not optimal.

But the problem doesn't end there. Often, we're told how to work together, too. There are protocols to follow or other rules by which we must abide. Not only are we prevented from organizing a team with people who want to play together, we can't even organize the way we get to play.

Like so many things in school, this is just part of the long-held tradition of control. But in this case it's a very costly tradition because we lose out on many excellent opportunities.

When a group of like-minded people organizes to solve a problem, they tend to take more ownership of their results. Not only is their collaboration more collegial, but they tend to be more creative in finding solutions, and more efficient when it comes to implementing them.

In school, many of our challenges really do require more than one adult to solve. Sometimes, to see if something new will work, we need to see it across three or four classrooms. Instead of forcing an entire staff to move forward with with something new, why take a small group of volunteers who will organize themselves into an effective team?

Self-organizing teams tend to require less oversight because the members look out for themselves. Self-organizing teams also tend to stay more focused on the problem at hand, partly because it is the problem that brought them together, and partly because their enthusiasm for collaboration is high.

The alternative to self-organizing teams is almost like a concession to failure. We have to organize by grade level because… well… that's just the way we've always done it. All the English teachers have to be in the same group because if they're not… well… then something different might happen.

Teams organized by structures, like grade level or subject, are brought together without a clear purpose. Then they are given a purpose. But because the team didn't sign up to work together toward that goal, it can be hard to reach consensus even on a way to begin.


Add your feedback below. To keep track of who is saying what, use an H1 tag (a plus sign "+" in the edit window) to identify yourself. For example:

Steve Peha

I introduced the idea of self-organizing teams recently at a workshop. One teacher was so excited about it she said she'd give just about anything to be able to work just one semester with two other teachers in her building.

Another teacher said that she and her office mates had come together very successfully over the past few years and now loved working together. But they were being split up—for no apparent reason—by the principal.

A superintendent once told me that his first action in his first year was going to be a series of arbitrary transfers in every building. His goal was to break up teams of teachers who had worked together for many years so that they wouldn't be such a strong influence.

A principal I know tried self-organizing teams. Some of his teachers chose the new option and to form their own teams, others chose to stay with their grade levels. In his opinion, the self-organizing teams focused more on improving student achievement while the grade-level teams focused more on "grade level business" like field trip planning.

The ability work with the people we work best with, and the ability to choose the way we want our groups to function, is a powerful thing. It seems to be so powerful, in fact, that many administrators don't want teachers to have it, and many teachers would give almost anything to get it.

This should be an indication to us of the potential of the practice. It should also be a cue that self-organizing teams represent an area where we might achieve unusual gains. Since we've rarely organized ourselves this way, we don't know how valuable it may be. But the emotions around it suggest that it's extremely powerful.

The best part is that self-organizing teams don't cost more time, money, or resources than grade level and subject matter teams. So even if they didn't produce terrific results, there would be no real cost in trying them out.

The Agile methodology predicts that self-organizing teams are more effective. If this has been true in technology and other industries, why wouldn't it be true in education?

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License