Benefits and Challenges of Self-directed Teams in Software Projects

Benefits and Challenges of Self-directed Teams in Software Projects

A scene from Silicon Valley
A scene from Silicon Valley (TV Series)

A Review of the Literature

To achieve higher success rates in design and development projects, “performing” (productive) teams have vital importance and are needed. According to TSP Body of Knowledge [1] Self-directed or Self-managed teams are best suited for creative knowledge work, which can be considered as software projects. This literature survey considers whether self-directed teams are the promising type of productive team formation within companies by responding to the following questions;

What are the Benefits of Self-directed Teams?

Teams, in which the members are “jelled”, are one of the key aspects for the productivity and the success of projects [2]. To grow such jelled teams, managers or team leaders should create an environment in which each individual group member –knowledge worker- has an autonomy. Since knowledge workers need their past experiences and degree of education to perform the knowledge work, they need to formulate their own processes for performing their work. Otherwise, they would feel uncomfortable under the pressure of micro-management and their creativity is decreased [1].

Feeling of membership and belonging has crucial importance while performing a work as a team. Self-directed teams’ members have this feeling, therefore; they are committed to a common goal, and have a strong dedication to get the job done [1]. Members of self-directed teams negotiate their own commitments within the team, and manage those commitments by themselves. To meet their commitments, team members set their own processes and quality standards [1]. By doing so, decision-making authority is brought down to the team member level, thus operational problems and uncertainties that are easily identified by team members are solved faster and more accurate [3].

Since members of self-directed teams have a feeling of membership of the team and they set and manage their own commitments, they also have the feeling of behaving responsible within the group. They take the project as if they personally own the project and act accordingly to accomplish the work and contribute the team’s success [1].

Members of self-directed teams or “jelled teams” consider themselves that they own the product being produced their team. Having this feeling, self-directed team members are pleased to have their names grouped together on the product that they produced [2]. Hence, members of the team work harder for the product that they are proud of, and they are eager for peer reviews to build the product with higher quality.

Communication problems caused by bureaucracy are one of the significant drawbacks of traditional type of team management. Not being able to communicate easily with the decision-makers and heavy loads of paperwork hurts the team formation [2]. On the other hand, in self-directed teams, members establish frequent and honest communication channels between their management, and their stakeholders [1], as well as with their customers [4]. With the help of this healthy communication network, the quality of the work is done by self-directed team increases.

Delegation of several management responsibilities and authority to the individual knowledge worker in a team enables the team leader/manager not only to direct and manage the team, but also to teach, coach, develop, and facilitate the team [1]. Therefore, team leaders could act like a leader rather than dealing with directing and managing the team.

Redistributing authority and responsibility from the managers/leaders to the team members contributes to productivity of the team [4], because this redistribution of authority and responsibility increases the intrinsic motivation of each team member [5]. According to Business Week, self-directed teams are 30–50% more productive than their counterparts on average [4]. Several examples, which are about productivity results of self-directed teams in well-known companies in which self-directed teams are formed, are as follows;

  • AT&T — Increased the quality of its operator service by 12 percent.
  • Federal Express — Cut service errors by 13 percent.
  • Johnson & Johnson — Achieved inventory reductions of $6 million.
  • Shenandoah Life Insurance — Cut staffing needs, saving $200,000 per year, while handling a 33-percent greater volume of work.
  • 3M’s Hutchinson facility — Increased production gains by 300 percent. [4]
  • Procter & Gamble gets 30 to 40 percent higher productivity.
  • Tektronix Inc. gains 75 percent productivity improvement by one self-directed team. [6]

To sum up the benefits of the self-directed teams, it would be more convenient to conclude this part with a result of a survey, which consists of the data gathered by over 500 organizations that offers several reasons why senior manager chose to change their approach to work [4]. According to this survey, self-directed teams have following advantages;

  • Improved quality, productivity and service.
  • Greater flexibility.
  • Reduced operating costs.
  • Faster response to technological change.
  • Fewer, simpler job classifications.
  • Better response to workers’ values.
  • Increased employee commitment to the organization.
  • Ability to attract and retain the best people. [4]

What are the Challenges of Self-directed Teams?

One challenge in forming a self-directed team is delegating the managerial authority and responsibility among the members of the team. Team members are not eager to take responsibility for the decisions that are previously taken by the managers [5]. As a result of this unwillingness to take the responsibility — which is the foundational aspect of the self-directed teams — is not satisfied. Consequently, self-directed teams could not be formed.

To be a self-directed team, a long journey that should be taken by both the members of the self-directed team and the management. Team members should be trained for working effectively in a team, developing skills for problem solving and decision making. They should also learn fundamental managerial skills to manage the processes that they developed for their work [4]. Furthermore, members of self-directed teams should also learn other team member’s job to plan their work, resolve differences and to make decisions by working together [4]. For these reasons, forming a self-directed team is a challenge in terms of the time it needs to be formed within a company.

Individual commitment to a common goal of team could be another challenge in self-directed teams [3]. Since the team setup consists of members that are committed to works in which they are specialized, they automatically give higher priority to their own tasks rather than team-level tasks [3]. Another reason for lack of individual commitment is unclear task completion criteria, which causes team members to not completing the task properly [3]. Lastly, meetings are not good environments for discussion and obtaining team commitment, because; after assigning a task to a team member by the team leader, other members of the team think that the discussion is irrelevant for them and they will not listen to the rest of the discussion [3]. Therefore, those problems should be resolved to establish individual commitment within the team.

To remain self-directed as a team, teams must be able to learn how to change the operating norms and rules within the team [3]. Self-directed teams should have the essential level of team autonomy to improve its internal processes and applying the new techniques from their continuous learning [3]. Failure to learn causes self-directed teams to struggle in adapting the operating norms and the environment, and that eventually be a vital challenge for self-directed teams.

Decentralizing the decision-making process is one of the challenges for the members of self-directed teams. Since team members are used to centralized decision-making process, they have difficulties aligning decisions on the operational level to team level, and as a result, other team members have no idea about what other team members are doing [3]. Moreover, old habits of team leaders/managers could make them make many decisions and not let the team decide by themselves [3]. Also, identifying who should be involved in the decision-making process is another issue for self-directed teams [3].

Sharing resources of the multiple self-directed within the company is a challenge for self-directed teams [3]. This case is more important for the organization that has a specialized culture, in which there is no other team member that can do or at least can assist the work to be done in the absence of the responsible team member.

Unnecessary amounts of organization control level on self-directed teams could be a threat to self-management [3]. To protect the self-directed team and to try keep the support of the management, team members and leader could cover up the problems within the team by applying impression management [3]. To this end, organizations should lessen their controls over the self-directed teams to establish a suitable environment for self-directed teams.

Having each member in the team as specialist on one task could be another challenge for self-directed teams [3]. As it is discussed earlier, absence of a specialized member in the team without a substitute, who can continue his work in his absence, could negatively affect the productivity of the team. Moreover, this specialization problem of self-directed teams could have an impact on shared commitment within the team [3].

What Kind of Organizational Structure is Suitable for Self-directed Teams?

In centralized organizations, responsibility and authority is at certain points of a hierarchy. The power of responsibility and authority is getting less in lower parts of this hierarchy. In highly centralized organizations, only a few people has the power that is necessary for decision-making as well as for planning tasks for daily activities of team members. In centralized organizations, the organization structure does not allow team members to participate in decision making process, therefore there is a lower macro-level decentralization in those kind of organization structures. In addition, there is a high authority in the hierarchy and team members are not allowed to plan and control their own work (higher micro-level centralization) [5].

Even though there is an intent for creating self-directed teams in a centralized organization structure, team members could not participate in decision-making and problem resolution activities across the organization since they have a limited knowledge about the overall process. In addition to that, since team members has little knowledge about the organizational process, in these type of organizations, adapting organizational processes to the team level is a difficult task to accomplish. In contrast, even if the team members have the knowledge about the overall processes within the organization, they may not be able to resolve organizational problems because they are simply not authorized to [5].

Centralized organization structures have an environment in which the supervisors, team leaders or team managers are not tend to distribute their power and control over the team across the team members [5]. Trying to establish a self-directed team in such environment could be a nonsense approach, due to the fact that supervisors, that are told to empower the team, are themselves not willing to relinquish power and control of the team. This is because the supervisors are also experiencing the same model of centralized management from the top-level management [5].

Establishing and maintaining self-directed teams is not likely to be effective and successful in highly centralized organization structures. This is because team members have small amounts of authority on policy making decisions (macro-level centralization) and day-to-day task decisions (micro-level centralization) [5].

On the other hand, in decentralized organizations, where the organization is structured democratically and the authority is distributed among the teams within the organization. With this type of organizational structure, problems are resolved where they occur and teams can participate in policy decisions (macro-level decentralization) [5]. Since team members are participating policy decisions in the organization, they have the knowledge and authority to adapt those processes within their teams. Therefore, organizational policies could implemented effectively in the smallest part of the organization [5]. Day-to-day tasks (micro-level decentralization) could be planned, controlled and executed by the team members who have the understanding of the organizational processes in decentralized organization structures [5]. Given these points show that decentralized organization structure is suitable for establishing and maintaining self-directed teams.

Self-directed teams are not always compatible with the formalized mechanisms of control in organizations [5]. Formalization requires commitment to the rules, procedures, instructions, and communication methods in writing norms of the organization. These types of control mechanisms could prevent self-directed team members to exercise the authority they have to do the job right. Moreover, highly formalized organizations have bureaucratic obstacles containing insufficient amount of top-level support and heavy personnel rules and restrictions [5]. Henceforth, the flexibility and the speed of self-directed teams’ problem solving ability is prevented and the effectiveness of self-directed teams is reduced.

In less formalized organizations, on the contrary, self-directed teams have the sufficient amount of flexibility to exercise the authority and responsibility that are given to them. This is because lack of heavy bureaucracy in these type of less formalized organizations. Team members could respond problems quickly, resolve them accurately, and they have the flexibility to make decisions about governance of the team [5].

Organizational context is another aspect that should be designed to support employee involvement for the success of the self-directed teams [7]. To support team member involvement, there are five features of an organization that should be moved to lower levels to endorse team member involvement, which are;

  1. The power to take action and make decisions about work and business performance
  2. Information about processes, quality, customer feedback, business results, competitor performance, and organizational changes.
  3. Rewards tied to performance results and development of capability and contributions.
  4. Training that enables employees to develop the knowledge required to contribute to organizational performance.
  5. The material resources that permit employees to accomplish their work well.[7]

Cohen [7] hypothesized that, if an organization context endorses team members’ involvement, the performance of the self-directed team gets higher. Hence, the features above should be taken down in to lower parts of an organization to boost up the performance of self-directed teams.

In conclusion, all those reasons mentioned above showed that to establish and maintain an effective self-directed team, organizational structure should be decentralized and less formal. In addition, organization context should be moved to lower levels to endorse team member involvement to the success of self-directed teams.


  1. W. S. Humphrey, T. A. Chick, W. Nichols and M. Pomeroy-Huff, Team Software Process (TSP) Body of Knowledge (BOK), Massachusetts: Carnegie Mellon University, 2010.
  2. T. DeMarco and T. Lister, Peopleware, New Jersey: Pearson Education, 1999.
  3. N. B. Moe, T. Dingsøyr and T. Dybå, “Overcoming Barriers to Self-Management in Software Teams,” IEEE Software, pp. 20–26, 2009.
  4. R. Williams, “Self-Directed Work Teams: A Competitive Advantage,” 01 11 1995. [Online]. Available:
  5. J. Tata and S. Prasad, “Team self-management, organizational structure, and judgments of team effectiveness.” Journal of Managerial Issues, 2004.
  6. J. R. Hackman, “Why Teams Don’t Work,” Theory and Research on Small Groups, pp. 245–267, 1998.
  7. S. G. Cohen, “Designing Effective Self-Managing Work Teams,” University of South California, Los Angeles, 1993.