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Self-managed and self-organized teams: The Beginning

We continue a series of conversations with Slava Moskalenko, the first Professional Scrum Trainer (PST) in Ukraine, co-founder of Agile.Live, about self-managed teams in Scrum. We continue this topic, and you will learn about how and where the path of self-organized teams began, as well as about Canon’s unique and non-standard management solution.

In the previous article, “Self-organized and cross-functional teams in Scrum” we have started looking into the specifics of self-managing teams and their importance for an organization to be agile.


The idea of self-managing teams is not a new thing. The first well-described cases of self-organization in the context of product development appeared in the 1970s. Later, in 1986, the Harvard Business Review published an article that is still cited by trustworthy sources and experts – “The New New Product Development Game“, where authors Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka introduce the concept of “self-organizing project teams”.

It’s a revolutionary approach to leadership – the team works without a manager! Team members decide for themselves what, how, when to do. For the “old school”, where there must be a “boss” who points everything out to everyone (or at least a complex organizational structure with all the procedures, endorsements, and approvals), the idea of self-organized teams without a boss seemed if not absurd, then unprecedented!

Management should learn the fundamental leadership mistakes while introducing a new agile culture. Some of them explained in our recent articles “My first failure in implementing agile culture” and “Agile- transformation: what mistakes do managers need to correct immediately?“.

Risky step

Everyone involved in product development should learn from the best companies and their approaches to become more agile, like in the case of Canon.

Back in the 1970s, aware of the new challenges, the company’s leaders set a goal to create a new single-lens camera, cheaper than existing on the market but with high-end quality to feel like a pro.

After explaining requirements to the engineers, the first thoughts of engineers were, “No, it is impossible!” There were many explanations: “We have never done this before,” “It will take too much time,” “Too risky” — you can continue the list yourself. Designers could argue – “It’s too challenging to integrate clunky automatic exposure elements!”. There are many other ways to decline a leader’s ambitions not to hesitate and release a new product faster than competitors. (For different ways to say “Yes”, see the article “Güner’s Dichotomy“).

Non-standard solution

The opposition to the old way of thinking is essential for dreamers and innovators among the leaders and top management. But, instead, Canon’s leadership surprised everyone by deciding to force R&D, production, and sales to work as one unit, not letting them go until they solve a problem!

In 1274, Pope Gregory X established a new election process. But, unfortunately, envy, ambition, fear of being poisoned, and other religious and political reasons hindered the decision-making process. So the enraged Pope Gregory X invented a new way to choose a successor.

The cardinals were locked in an isolated room so that they could finally elect a new pontiff. The beginning of the voting was indicated by the dark smoke rising from the chimney – the participants burned the ballots. As soon as the winning candidate received two-thirds of the votes plus one vote, they added a straw to the fire to give another signal – white smoke, which indicated the successful completion of the election.

Then came the term is known as “conclave” (from the Latin con claudere – “lock together” and cum clave – “turnkey“). Conclaves are still held in the Sistine Chapel.

We don’t know whether Canon’s managers knew about “conclave” or not. The only thing known is the phenomenal success the company has achieved since engineers and designers came out of the lock – more than a million new cameras have been sold.

A new era

The innovative product development approach has become one of those that opened the door to a new era – professionals’ time.

The truth is that previously the technology breakthroughs were driven by single geniuses like Edison, Tesla, Einstein, and others. Nowadays, the course of history is influenced by teams of specialists, especially now – in a time of rapid digitalization, when IT development becomes a new norm even in companies that yesterday had nothing to do with IT.

Of course, there are areas where you need to shout, growl and politely say a few kind words to a person who inadvertently dropped a brick, which happened to be on the right foot of the “boss“. However, that’s probably not what they need; these are “vertical models“.

However, managing a highly skilled force of intellectuals is different from telling a low-skilled worker where to place a flowerpot with a cactus.

The ideas of the self-organized teams of Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka formed the basis of Scrum.


• There is a new type of organization that can achieve “impossible” tasks. In the 1970s, the concept of “self-organizing project teams” (Japanese), proposed by Japanese researchers and since the beginning of the XXI century. – self-managing teams within the Scrum approach.
• A self-managed team can invent non-standard solutions.
• Self-organized teams involve interaction, communication, consensus, coordination of actions between different participants in product development.
• Self-managed teams bring a product to market faster than competitors in the old paradigm.
• Companies seeking success and market leadership should carefully study the phenomenon of self-managed teams and apply it when starting a new product initiative.

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