Case Study: MYOB

Jun 23, 2015  ·  Sandy Mamoli

Self-selection helps Agile teams pick themselves. And it’s spreading: Since we shared our Self-Selection kit in May 2014 we have heard about successful Self-Selection events from companies from all over the world.

Read our interview with MYOB’s Simon Bristow and Alex Barreto, and find out how they made it happen.

Before you did it

Why did you choose to use self-selection?

We had been pushing for stability in the teams for a long time by attempting to keep established groups together and aligning these teams to work rather than breaking down teams and spinning up new groups to meet specific demand. We’d been guilty of ‘tinkering’ with team make-up and moving individuals around to meet short term goals, without really understanding the impact of disrupting formed groups. As a nod to our intentions, we decided that if we were going to keep individuals in the same groups for as long as possible, it made sense for those groups to self-form.

Additionally we had spent a lot of time breaking down silos across the Product Development group and importantly breaking down communication barriers between the teams and key senior stakeholders. We were aiming for a more lightweight, scalable, self-governed approach to all work across our portfolio, and to do this we needed the teams to recognise the key leadership role they played in its success. We felt that by asking the teams to self-select, it only reinforced our trust in their capabilities.

The other reason we decided to do it was to increase staff engagement and, therefore, productivity. I believe that people who are connected to what they do are more productive and willing to put an extra effort to achieve a goal. With the increased pressures on delivery teams to do more with less, it is fundamental to have an engaged team.

What was the state of play with your teams and people at the time?

Largely, we felt that team make up at the time wasn’t broken per se, but we felt that make up had been derived somewhat artificially by senior managers in the group, based on our need to meet particular business goals. We had some anecdotal evidence to suggest that a few individuals weren’t 100% happy in their teams, but most of this discontent was based on aligning their work with their career aspirations rather than problems with team members. We were keen to see if anyone pushed themselves into a new direction.

What did you think would happen? Did you have any specific fears or worries?

We had plenty of fears, particularly about people thinking of themselves or their friends over the needs of the MYOB, or over alignment with the ‘cool’ teams (eg Mobile teams). We hypothesised about what might happen and began to plan contingencies. However, the longer this went on, the more we realised that we were trying to plan for eventualities that might not happen and this was just waste. So, we decided to be bold and deal with whatever came up on the fly. It was hard to relinquish this feeling of control over the outcome, but it was extremely liberating at the same time. After all, trying to plan for potential issues breaks the intention of what we were trying to achieve in the first place.

Another concern was the time of the year in which we decided to embark on self-selection. Even though we had just finished a software release, the pressure was on to meet the targets for Q1, as we were half way through it, and re-organising the teams at that point could risk it further.

What would you have done if it didn’t work? What was your worst case scenario?

I guess if it hadn’t worked, we would have worked it out at that point. Our feeling was that if we ended up with a sub-optimal solution that would have been obvious to all involved – we would have expected the teams to tell us. As above, we decided to just deal with it when and if it happened.

How much preparation was involved?

Luckily we had a great blog and toolkit from the outstanding Nomad8 team that helped us immensely! We followed the recommendations in the self-selection toolkit pretty closely so preparation for the activity was kept to a minimum – really just the setup of the up-front expectations and the rules and guidance for the day.

The major change was that we broke the activity into 2 stages. The first stage was a self-selection to form the core leadership in the team: Product Manager, Technical Lead and Business Analyst. We felt this was necessary because we wanted the ‘pitch’ to the teams to be a joint effort between Product and Delivery. We gave these core teams a couple of days to develop some lightweight ‘PR’ then we ran the second stage which was the developers and testers self-selecting into teams. It worked pretty well.

What did you find to be the most persuasive argument when people didn’t think self-selection was the way forward?

We have been working hard on encouraging a culture of experimentation, and we saw this as a great way to reinforce this. For any doubters, we talked about our hypotheses for the activity, and that at the end of the day, it was just another experiment that we would continually improve on to make our world a better place.

During Self Selection

Were the teams pre-selected?

No, but a few of us ran a ‘book’ where we predicted who might join which team. Nobody got it 100% right! But it was pretty close!

What constraints did you place on the people involved?

We suggested that an ‘ideal’ team number was 7 people, but we agreed to review this depending on the outcome. We actually set the team structure upfront. So people just needed to fill in the names. Obviously we followed the recommended rule, doing what was best for MYOB first.

What did you notice about the level of buy into the process when people arrived and when they were taking part?

Initially, there was a positive vibe and a bit of a party atmosphere, but after the first couple of rounds, when team felt they were only partly formed, things got a bit more serious with plenty of ‘arms-folded’ discussions. It was clear that it was quite confronting to a lot of the people involved. Amongst some, we could sense some uncertainty and fear about the conversations that were being made, and the enormity of the decision: after all, it could have had a big impact on their career.

Was there anything left over at the end of the self-selection event which required follow up?

There were a couple of people that were on leave so there was some uncertainty about how they felt amongst others. We had to ‘suggest’ appropriate teams for these absent folks, which gave an impression of ‘filling the gaps’ just to get the exercise done on the day. I wish we hadn’t played it that way and left it to the individuals to select when they returned.

What surprised you most about the process or the outcome?

The fact that we walked out after 90 minutes with 5 pretty well formed and pumped teams!

After you did it

What did you learn?

Most people spoke positively of the experiment, and some people felt they ended up in a better place – others did not and felt compromised – they felt they had ‘taken one for the team’ to ensure balance. In this case there was an expectation that this would be remembered in the future.

There was conjecture over individuals respect for rule #1 (What’s best for MYOB) over rule # 2 (What’s best for me). Some felt that some individuals prioritised 2 over 1 and this caused some unrest.

Teams operated within their constraints: even though we had only ‘suggested’ an ideal team size of 7, pretty much all teams adhered to this constraint.

Throughout the selection rounds, we felt that risks were not discussed appropriately. The teams focussed on the raw numbers of developers and testers, rather than broader potential risks to delivery with the current set up. The teams felt uncomfortable talking about individuals in their team that may not have had an ideal capability for the job at hand. We wondered if we had set more constraints, this would have resulted in broader thinking about risks.

There were no major surprises: we felt that some people had opportunities to head in a new direction, but there wasn’t as much movement as we thought we might see.

Some of the teams re-formed with many of the same people, but some felt they had ‘lost’ key people and felt they were worse off collectively than they had been before. There was a certain anti-climax the next day when everyone changed desks, as if ‘the wind had been taken out’ of some team’s sails. Other teams were pumped though – even higher energy than before.

Some teams were under subscribed in the early rounds, and there was a lot of dismay from the ‘pitch’ teams that maybe they hadn’t done a great job with the sell. Despite getting it an acceptable make up in the end, there was a lingering doubt that these teams were not the popular teams – we sense they are still coming to terms with this fact

At the later rounds, managers got involved to help facilitate discussions to keep it moving where they felt there was a stalemate. This resulted in decisions being made, but there were individuals who felt they had been ‘strong armed’ into making a decision to head somewhere that wasn’t their first choice. I wish we hadn’t been so quick to try and ‘sort out’ problems.

As mentioned above, some people found this exercise really hard. Some even suggested they were happy to just be told where to go – they were happy to defer the decision to someone else. In some ways this is an understandable response, as that is what people have been used to in the past, but it is indicative of a part of our culture that we want to consign to the past – we want people to understand that they own their careers and it’s them who are driving it.

Was it a success?

On the whole I would say so, but not without its issues. Obviously we are not planning on re-running any self-selection exercise soon with this group as one of our intentions was to form teams to stay together for a long time. However, there are plenty of learning and things to watch for should we attempt it again.

Did you notice anything about the teams that self selected that day? For example, did they stay together longer, or did they storm faster than usual?

Our view was that we have moved on quite quickly. Teams are used to dealing with the storming, norming and performing phases (because we’ve changed them around so frequently in the past) so it wasn’t a huge adjustment in some respects. Additionally, we have had new team members start across the board – so the team that originally self-selected is now considerably different. Interestingly, we didn’t give new starters the chance to self-select – maybe we should have done that?!

Has self selection had any adverse affects?

Certainly initially some teams had the sense of being worse off, but now we have moved on, no.

What would you say to someone who is debating whether to use elements of self-selection?

I would encourage them to view the exercise as an experiment, come up with some hypotheses of the positive effects of running the self-selection then measure its success. It is a powerful tool to increase staff engagement so if that is a goal, then people should try it out.

Do you know anyone else who has since tried self selection?

No, but I will buy the book to find out!


Simon has been Program Manager at MYOB for 2 years. He’s had a bunch of different roles in software development for the last 20 years, working in an agile way for the last 15. At his current role he wanted to think about Program and Portfolio Management in a fresh way, using everything he’d learnt at the team level, and apply it to the portfolio. There’s a surprising simplicity to Portfolio Management if you use lean and agile principles as your foundation. However, it’s a challenge to influence years of ingrained thinking and behaviour – team self-selection was just one experiment to attempt to do this.


Alex is a Harley rider, full time Development Manager at MYOB and a World Pro silver medalist in the joint destruction and suffocation business (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu). Alex has been with MYOB’s Engineering group for the past 2.5 years and has previously worked for Sensis, Primus Telecom, Sydney University and UNDP in similar delivery roles. Alex is passionate about Agile and has a distinctive motivation for leading and developing people.

Categories: Self-Selection.

Tags: case study, self-selection, squadification, Team.