Self-Organizing Teams Need a Gardener

The position of managing a self-organized team is a tricky one, and not many individuals promoted to management are suited for it. The traditional management candidate earns their stripes by being good at the technical task they are supposed to supervise, which does make a certain amount of sense. But the catch is a self-organizing team isn’t looking for a technical expert to tell them what to do; they’re looking for someone to block problems, provide insight, provide air cover, and maintain balance in the garden.

The manager on a team where there’s technically no need for one does what good managers on traditional teams have done for decades: they provide a vision of where to go, provide insight on how the journey is progressing, and remove problems as they appear in the path.

Teams as a Garden

The ol’ command-and-control model of teams and leadership is built on the idea that any butt in a seat, combined with enough other butts in other seats, can accomplish a task well. This thinking somehow survived into the 21st century, and is somehow getting a revival of sorts as the “return to the office” debate heats up. (It’s almost like a generation of decision makers has refused to either adapt with the times or get out of the way, but that will eventually resolve itself).

These days, it very much matters who is in what role, and how they interact with their other teammates. The GM of the Wendy’s I described in the last post described herself as a gardener: “I have to decide who to plant, where in the garden they’ll thrive, and do a little weeding and pruning to make sure everyone gets enough sunlight.” Jim Collins in Good To Great talked about getting the right people on the bus, and then finding the right seats for those people.

A team within a larger organization that has a budget, cannot be truly self-managing. The next best thing is a manager who views the team as a garden to be tended.

Maintaining Perspective

The manager’s role in a self-organized environment is largely about pointing things out.

  • “Was everyone aware there was a velocity drop last sprint?”
  • “The client had some specific notes from last demo…”
  • “Maybe this isn’t a fair conclusion, but it seems like pull requests are taking a long time to get reviewed.”
  • “I’m seeing a lot of work in progress that doesn’t seem to align with our sprint goals…”

When being trained to manage a Wendy’s in the mid 2000’s, the actual position assigned to the manager in charge was called the “Operations Leader.” (I have no idea if this approach survived the buyout that washed away so much of the Wendy’s Dave Thomas built). This was a change from the old way, where a manager worked in a position like sandwiches or fries and called the shots from there. It was like shifting from the player-manager arrangement baseball had early in the 20th century, to the modern “managing is a full time job” approach.

Not being tied to a position, being constantly on the move observing the restaurant operation, allowed the manager to see things like a slow moving front line. Or an over-full trash can. It allowed them to run to the back for more $1’s without hurting the flow of the team. I was taught that if I needed to step into a position, I needed to know how I was getting out of it — “I’m covering fries till Juan gets back from his break” or “I’m going to step in and help fill the grill with meat.”

The manager on a software team likewise isn’t heads-down writing code; they’re looking around, observing. They’re connecting with the client or the stakeholder. They’re digging into metrics. This gives them a wider perspective and more detailed context than most of the team who are writing code or similar tasks. From time to time, they dive in to pair with someone, or to take a quick look at some tricky problem. They’re uniquely positioned to reflect the performance of the team back to the team.

Maintaining Momentum

In a perfect world, this reflection should be enough to get the team started on either a solution or an explanation (as much as a senior leader might like an action plan when velocity dips, sometimes it can’t be helped). But we’ve all been in that meeting where everyone understands the problem but nothing seems to push the group towards decision mode.

This is where the manager needs to start asking some pointed questions.

  • “So I’m hearing this card isn’t needed — can we remove it?”
  • “Is the root cause of this bug in the data layer or the data itself?”
  • “I have to give George something…based on our velocity trend, can we do this in the current sprint?”
  • “Does this implementation work? Can we merge it now and add enhancements to the backlog?”

As the “ops leader,” keeping customers flowing through the lines is the primary goal. Sometimes a register operator is lingering a little too long chatting with a regular instead of getting the next order. Sometimes the grill operator is a little too focused on aligning the meat in perfect rows. Friendliness and attention to detail are excellent qualities we all want to see in people, but without the benefit of the wider perspective it can be hard to tell if we’re going overboard.

Even the most disciplined software creator will charge off into the weeds from time to time, and very few of them think deadlines or estimates are things intelligent folks deal in. By bringing their experience and perspective on the entire project to bear, and helping the team understand the big picture a skilled manager can be the difference between success and failure on a project.

The manager is also in a unique position to be the “first follower” of a suggested action, and thus break deadlocks or violent agreement. And if all else fails–and I mean, really fails–sometimes it’s the manager who needs to make the decision.

Maintaining Balance

Building teams out of individuals with different backgrounds and experience levels is challenging. Expecting them to just work together to accomplish common goals with limited direction is an extra layer on top of that. We can’t find a better example of this than the Wendy’s lunch team: high schoolers in an occupational intervention program, immigrants, retirees, college students, and occasionally a full adult training to be an assistant or general manager. One does not simply plop this group onto a restaurant floor and watch them work together in perfect harmony. This garden needed cultivating.


  • Hired for people who could play well with others
  • Got to know the team, and learned what different people valued
  • Observed interactions on the line and made note of good and bad matchups
  • Intervened with bad performance

Rather than thinking about the number of full-time equivalents they needed to hire, the folks at this Wendy’s thought about the skill and personality gaps. They were hiring for someone who could keep up with Janet, for someone who could be patient with Juan’s broken English. They were careful to not upset the harmony of their team by introducing someone who was obviously not going to be able to mesh with the rest.

This didn’t always lead to happily-ever-after, because people are people. So management learned that Janet and Teresa just didn’t get along, and it’d be silly to position them to work together. They discovered that Juan and Ricky apparently could read each others’ minds, and tried not to separate them.

They also took steps to support people who were really struggling, to eliminate an excessive burden on the rest of the team. A manager pairing with someone till they got the hang of things on fries, or giving direct feedback on how to improve saved resentful and friction among the team and let them just work.

In a worst case scenario, when we discovered that George had certain prejudices against immigrants he wasn’t willing to rethink…well, this is a capitalist society, and most teams (even self-organizing ones) can’t just eject people. That too fell to the manager to handle.


The manager does the hard work of protecting the team. From outsiders, by way of handling senior management and careful selection of new additions, and from itself by way of monitoring and nudging members towards better performance. They also are charged with doing the hard work when someone is struggling to sync with the team and with being the bad guy in situations where someone won’t.

The manager on a team where there’s technically no need for one does what good managers on traditional teams have done for decades: they provide a vision of where to go, provide insight on how the journey is progressing, and remove problems as they appear in the path.

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