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Self Organizing Teams, a new take on Hiring

August 19, 2010

People do a lot of talking about self organizing teams in the agile world.  Letting the team figure out how to accomplish a task or solve a problem or just achieve some end in the best way they can determine on their own.  When people talk about this they generally think about what tools the team will use, what language might they pick, will they pair program, will they use test driven development, what actual implementation will they use etc etc.  What happens when they tell you they need more people on the team, or a more diverse skill set and the agreed upon solution is hiring?

Lets assume we work in a traditional company.  The manager for the team figures out what he think the team needs, steals a job description off a job posting site writes up a job description for the position, and passes it on to his boss to ask for approval.  Lets pretend that some magic happens and it just immediately gets approved with some arbitrary salary cap for the position that nobody understands the criteria for.  The job description gets passed off to the HR department, and we wait.  We continue to keep waiting for a while longer.  Then poof, we find out a person is hired that will join our team in 2 weeks, yay!  If you won the lottery, the person is exactly what you were looking for, has all the right skills, fits in with the rest of the team, and is paid fairly according to their skills.  Now go log in to your online banking app and check if you’re a millionaire……….No?  I didn’t think so, because as it happens, most of us have never won the lottery :)

Ok, now lets look at how things might work in an agile organization that has truly self organizing teams with leadership that trusts the ability of those self organizing teams to make good decisions.  In daily standup meetings, it has become a regular occurrence that the team says they are being held up by a lack of some skill set, or just by an insufficient number of people to tackle everything as quickly as desired.  This gets brought to the attention of the manager in charge of the department so a short meeting is held with the team to talk about potential solutions to the problem.  The team and manager discuss different options and eventually all agree that the best course of action is to add another person to the team.  The team tells the manager what things they would like to see in a new person, and the manager uses that information to create a job posting for the position.  The posting is run past the team to make sure nothing was missed and give them an opportunity to suggest changes.  The manager gets the necessary approval (lets just pretend for the sake of this story that the manager’s manager just says “great idea!  go for it!”), and they place a job ad with the job description wherever they choose to do so.

Some time later, a pile of applications for the posting have been delivered to the managers inbox.  This is the point where the really unorthodox sounding parts start to come in if you are from an old fashioned command and control company.  The manager goes to see the team, tells them he has a number of applications for the job posting, and asks the team who would like to review them with him!  A few people from the team want to do this so they figure out the best way to divide up the work and they create their short list of people to interview.

Now it’s time for some phone screens.  We’ll assume that our company has a receptionist who contacted everybody on the short list for us and set up appointments for the calls.  The manager talks to the team and asks if anybody wants to be involved in the phone screen interviews.  The team talks it over and decided that seeing as the phone screen is mainly just a short talk to see if the person sounds like they fit the corporate culture of the company that it wouldn’t be the most productive use of their time, so they opt out of this stage and let the manager handle it, and they will wait until the technical portion to get involved.  The manager is a bit sad because he was hoping he could get out of having to do all the phone screens, but it’s his job to keep the team productive, so time to take one for the team.

Phone screens are done and more candidates are weeded out, the candidates that sounded good get sent a take home coding assignment that was created by the team to use for evaluating their basic skills.  When the coding assignments are received, volunteers from the team review the results and decide which candidates look good enough to meet in person so they can grill them a little harder and see if they will fit in with the team culture, not just the corporate culture. 

Ok, this may sound crazy, but it works!  The manager facilitates setting up an interview in the office with the applicants that have made it to this stage.  Two team members work on a team exercise with the applicant for at least a couple of hours, the longer the better.  During this time the manager is “completely” uninvolved, meaning not present, they should be off doing something else.  When the interview is over the manager discusses how it went with the team members, and ultimately the most important question for the team members to answer is “Would you want this person on your team?”.

So at the end of the day all of the candidates come in and work with a couple members of the team for a few hours, and the team chooses the candidate they would like to add to their team (or rejects them all, lets pretend they picked one).  They help pin down the candidates skill level and value to help the manager determine what this person will be worth to the company (determine the offer that will be made). 

The offer is made, some negotiation inevitably happens, we’ll assume it was successful and the new team member joins the team. 

That was an awful lot of writing compared to the first scenario.  Lots of stuff apparently was happening in that HR department “magic” that happened between handing in the job description and getting the new person I guess!

So when comparing the two scenario’s, lets look at some of the benefits of the second:

  1. the team gets to decide who does or does not join their team
  2. the team evaluates the new team members skills and knowledge
  3. any lieing or “padding” done on the resume or CV will quickly be uncovered by the team, nobody smells BS better than your peers!
  4. you don’t have to rely on winning the lottery!

Questions or comments are welcome, I would love to hear how some other people handle hiring.  The process above is how it’s handled in my department and it has worked out fabulously so far, we’ve never had a single new hire not make it through probation using this process.


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