Self-selection can be used to solve a myriad of organizational problems or situations. It fosters the habits that form the basis for a healthy organization: trust, empowerment, autonomy, mastery, and purpose (to name a few). Here are the most common reasons to try self-selection.
Retention & Happiness
When an organization realizes it has a retention or morale problem, it needs to act fast to keep its remaining talent. People leave for a lot of reasons: they don’t get along with their managers, the work is not exciting or challenging, their friends left, the work doesn’t align with an important mission, etc. Whatever the reason, they’re no longer motivated to continue working for your company. What does motivate us? Daniel Pink points out in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, that the three ingredients for motivation are autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
Self-selection allows teams and individuals to have each one of these motivating factors. Individuals gain the autonomy to choose what they work on. They can choose a new skill and work on mastering it. They can choose something meaningful to them so they come to work with a purpose each day. Couple that with the ability to choose who they work with and you have an environment that makes it fun to come to work again.
Stale Teams & New Skills
Life gets dull when we aren’t challenged. One mentor of ours used to tell us that everyone should aim to spend about three years in any one job. The first year is to ramp up and get really, really good at that job. The second year is to perform — really knock people’s socks off — and the third year should be focused on transferring knowledge and looking for your next gig. This advice acknowledges the fact that personal growth will plateau if we stay in one job for too long and we’re less happy when we aren’t growing.
Self-selection allows movement within your organization and movement fosters employees who can back each other up and work faster through contacts on multiple teams. Self-selection also allows team members to raise their hands and have a conversation about what they want to do and why. It makes it socially acceptable to move around. Organizations may not want to change teams very often, but when you have stale teams and/or people who want to learn new skills, the time is ripe for self-selection.
Reorgs & Lay-offs
Reorgs and lay-offs can lead to retention problems, poor productivity, and low morale. They shake-up the organization, usually causing months of work for the management teams that architect the changes and unrest as teams run through Tuckman’s teaming stages. The lay-off and reorg at Opower, where we first tried self-selection, took the leadership well over a month to put together, followed by weeks of uncertainty as the teams recovered from their losses.
Self-selection is not only a win from a management standpoint, but also sends the right message to employees during times of adversity: “We trust and empower you to make the right decisions for the company and we want you to be happy with the jobs you have.” That’s a very powerful message for individuals that, in some cases, just lost good friends in a lay-off and are likely thinking about leaving themselves.
Often, when an organization is transitioning teams from a waterfall software development model to an agile one, it, by default, has to form new teams as the old waterfall teams tend to be siloed by job family and are much larger. There may also be people whose jobs will change. Where will you get your product managers from? How will your architects and release managers’ jobs change? How are you going to make sure each team has quality assurance (QA) skills?
Let the teams choose for themselves! If an engineer has never worked in an agile environment, but knows she’ll get a chance to choose what she works on and who she works with, would that make her more excited to transition? You bet it would! Take advantage of this already turbulent time to begin empowering your teams to make their own decisions. The principles that self-selection fosters (empowerment, trust, decentralized decision-making, etc) align perfectly with those of agile software development.
Are you interested in discussing whether the time is right for self-selection in your organization? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for help.