Much is written about self-organization in an Agile world. For some, the notion of self-organizing teams scares folks. Does this mean that a team can decide everything? Of course, the short answer is no. I suggest the concern is due to not having boundaries for self-organization. I call the framework for this context, bounded authority. Bounded authority is defined by the information, experience, and decisions a group has control over within their context. Within a hierarchical structure of a company, bounded authority can work at multiple levels. For simplicity, let us focus on the team level, middle management level, and senior management level.
But first, let’s spend a few minutes to define what self organization means at a team level. A self organizing team is a group of motivated individuals who have a common purpose, owns their work, and has the authority to make decisions on the work they are doing. Within an Agile context, the goal is to push decision making to the lowest possible level and to the level in which the most information and experience dwells. For a Scrum team, they self organize around the work that has been prioritized by the Product Owner that lives within the product backlog. Once that work is available at the team level, the team has the authority to make architecture, design, programming, and coding decisions and can self-organize around the work.
So if the team’s work is defined within the product backlog, what does middle management do? Can they assign work to the team? The short answer is that this is not within the bounded authority for the middle management since the team gets their work from the product backlog. While the team self-organizes around the work, middle management helps optimize flow for their teams and enables the team to be its most effective. By optimizing flow for their organization and teams, this includes removing impediments for their teams to enable them to work faster. Middle Management may also focus on helping their teams with their career management goals.
Above the middle management are the senior management (or executives). Should they be reaching down and telling the teams how to build the product? To answer this question, another question should be answered. Does senior management have more knowledge and experience in what should be built or is this knowledge most known at the team level? While the answer is the latter (team level), senior management has a bounded authority and duty to provide a strategy for the organization. This means they must help the teams understand the strategy and help them align strategy with their work.
Another example of bounded authority is relating it to your requirements hierarchy. Consider who has the authority over the strategy, who has the authority over the ideas, who has the authority over the user stories. This could be senior management who makes the decision to decide the top strategies, the chief product owners who makes the decision on prioritizing the ideas, the product owner who owns the decision to prioritize the backlog, and the and team who makes the decision on how to self-organize around the user stories.
The key to bounded authority is that each level knows what they can self-organize around, what they have the authority to change, and areas in which they can make decisions. Within an Agile context, that level of ownership and decision-making should be pushed down to the lowest possible level. This can be an exercise that occurs at both the senior management and middle management levels.