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Let’s run an experiment! Self-selection at HBC Digital

Originally posted to the HBC Tech website on May 31st, 2017

Inspired by Opower’s success story, we ran a self-selection experiment at HBC Digital.

Dubbed as “the most anticipated event of the year” it enabled 39 team members to self-select into 4 project teams. How did they do it? By picking a project they wanted to work on, the teammates they wanted to work with and keeping a “Do what’s best for the company” attitude. Read on to learn about our experience and consider giving a self-selection a try!

A little bit of introduction:

Who are we?

HBC Digital is the group that drives the digital retail/e-commerce and digital customer experience across all HBC retail banners including Hudson’s Bay, Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Saks OFF 5TH.

Our process, trifectas, and team ingredients

Our development process is largely inspired by the agile workflow and has the ideas of intrinsic motivation at its core. What agile flavor do we use? It depends on the team.

Each team has full autonomy in selecting Scrum, Kanban, XP, a combination thereof, or none of the above as their process. As long as they remain small, nimble, able to collaborate, and continuously deliver value, they can tailor the process to their needs.

We do keep certain key components standard across all teams. One of them is a “Trifecta” – a group of servant-leaders in each team: a Product Manager, an Agile Project Manager, and a Tech Lead. They work together to support their team and enable the team’s success. We value continuous learning and facilitate role blending by instilling our Team Ingredients framework. Originally designed by Heather Fleming, the Team Ingredients framework facilitates team-level conversations about the team strengths, learning interests, and cross-training opportunities.

Over the years the framework evolved from being a management tool for assessing teams from “outside-in” to being a team tool that supports self-organizing and learning discussions. After a major revamp and gamification of the framework in 2016, we now use it as part of our Liftoff sessions and team working agreement conversations.

Just like our Team Ingredients framework, our process continues to evolve. We experiment with new ideas and practices to facilitate teams’ effectiveness and create an environment for teams to thrive. Self-selection is our latest experiment and this blog post is a glimpse into how it went.

Self-selection triggers and enablers

Organizational change

As an organization that grew through acquisitions, at one point we found ourselves dealing with an unhealthy mix of cultures, duplicate roles, and clashing mindsets. To remain lean and agile, we went through a restructuring at all levels.

Inspiring case studies

When we were evaluating the best ways to re-form the teams, we came across Amber King and Jess Huth’s talk on self-selection at Business Agility 2017 Conference. The lightbulb went on! Amber and Jess were describing exactly the situation we were in at that time and were reporting the positive effect of running self-selection with the teams at Opower. We followed up with them on Skype afterward. Hearing their compelling story again and being encouraged by their guidance, we left the call fired up to give the self-selection a try!

Self-selection manual

When it is your turn to plan for self-selection, pick up a copy of Sandy Mamoli and David Mole’s book “Creating Great Teams: How Self-Selection Lets People Excel” This very detailed facilitation guide from the inventors of the self-selection process is indispensable in preparing for and facilitating a self-selection event.

Past success

What worked in our favor was the fact that HBC Tech had tried running self-selection in 2012 as part of a transition to “two-pizza” teams. The self-selection event was called 'Speed Dating', involving 50 people and 6 projects. Fun fact - a number of today’s leaders were involved in the 2012 event as regular participants.


We kept the preparation process very transparent. Dedicated Slack channel, Confluence page with progress updates and participants’ info, communication at the tech all-hands meetings and Q&A sessions – everything to avoid creating discomfort and to reduce the fear factor amongst team members.

Self-selection in seven steps

1. Get Leadership Buy-In

One of the first steps in self-selection is getting buy-in from your leadership team. Whether you start from feature teams or component teams, a self-selection event has the potential of impacting the existing reporting structure in your organization. Have an open conversation with each of the leaders to clarify the process, understand their concerns, and answer questions.

Is there a small modification you can make to the process to mitigate these concerns and turn the leaders into your supporters? From our experience, making a self-selection invitational and positioning it as “an experiment” fast-tracked its acceptance in the organization.

2. Identify Participants

How many people will be involved in your self-selection? Will it include all of your existing project teams or a subset?

Reducing the size of the self-selection to only a subset of the teams at HBC Digital made our experiment more plausible. By the same token, it created a bit of confusion around who was in vs. who was not.

If you are running self-selection for a subset of your teams, make sure that the list of participants is known and publicly available to everyone. Verify that the total number of participants is equal to or smaller than the number of open spots on the new teams.

Pre-selected vs. free-moving participants

Decide if you need to have any of the team members pre-selected in each team. For us, the only two pre-selected roles in each team were a Product Manager and a Tech Lead. They were the key partners in pitching the initiative to team members. All others (including Agile Project Managers) were invited to self-select into new teams.

FTEs vs. Contractors

If you have contractors working on your projects alongside the full-time employees, you will need to figure out if limiting self-selection to full-time employees makes sense in your environment.

Since our typical team had a mix of full-time employees and contractors, it was logical for us to invite both groups to participate in the self-selection. After all, individuals were selecting the teams based on a business idea, a technology stack, and the other individuals that they wanted to work with. We did make one adjustment to the process and asked contractors to give employees “first dibs” at selecting their new teams. Everyone had equal opportunity after the first round of the self-selection.