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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.


Usually, you would want to limit participation to those directly involved in self-selection. In our case, there was so much interest in the self-selection experiment across the organization, that we had to compromise by introducing an observer role. Observers were invited to join in the first part of the self-selection event. They could check out how the room was set up, take a peek at the participants’ cards. They could listen to initiative pitches for all teams, without making an actual selection. Observers were asked to leave after the break and before the start of the actual teams’ selection.

3. Work with Your Key Partners

Adjust the process to fit your needs

During our prep work, we discovered that some team members felt very apprehensive about self-selection processes. To some extent, it reminded them of a negative experience they had in their childhood with a selection into sports teams. We collaborated with current teams’ Trifectas to reduce potential discomfort with the following adjustments:

  • We modified the “I have no squad” poster into the “Available to help” poster for a more positive spin.

  • We made a compromise on consultants’ participation, asking them to add their cards to the “I am available to help” poster in the first round and letting them participate equally starting from the second round.

  • We introduced a “No first come first serve” rule to keep the options open for everyone and avoid informal pre-selection.

Product Managers and Tech Leads pitches.

Coach them to inspire people with their short pitches about a product vision and a technology stack:

  • Why is this initiative important to our business?

  • How can you make a difference if you join?

  • What exciting technologies will you get a chance to work with if you become a part of this team?

  • What kind of team are we looking to build?

Establish the team formula

This part is really critical.

Your team formula may include the core team only, or like in our case, members from the larger project community (Infrastructure Engineers, UX Designers, etc.) As a facilitator, you want to understand very well the needs of each project in terms of specific roles and the number of people required for each role. Cross-check the total number of people based on the team formula with the number of people invited to participate in the self-selection. Avoid putting people into “musical chairs” at all costs!

4. Evangelize

Take the uncertainty out of the self-selection! Clarify questions, address concerns, play the “what-ifs”, collect questions and make answers available to everyone.

We learned to use a variety of channels to spread the word about self-selection:

  • announcements at Tech All-hands meetings

  • dedicated Q&A sessions with each existing group.

  • Confluence Q&A page

  • #self-selection Slack channel

  • formal and informal one-on-one conversations (including hallway and elevator chats)

  • discussion between the Tech Leads and Product Managers and their potential team members

5. Prepare


It was important for us to find the right space and set the right mood for the actual self-selection event. The space that worked for us met all of our criteria:

1) Appropriate for the size of the group

2) Natural light

3) Separate space for pitches and for team posters

4) Away from the usual team spaces (to minimize distractions)


Speaking of the right mood, we had enough good snacks brought in for all participants and observers!

Depending on the time of the day, you may plan on bringing breakfast, lunch, or snacks into your self-selection event. We ran ours in the afternoon and brought in a selection of European chocolate, popcorn, and juices.


Help the participants remember the rules and find the team corners by preparing posters. Be creative, make them visually appealing. Here is what worked for us:

1) One team poster per team with the project/team name, team formula, and a team mascot.

2) Rules posters:

  • “Do what’s best for the company”

  • “Equal team selection opportunity”

  • “Teams have to be capable of delivering end to end”

3) “Available to help” poster. This is very similar to the “I have no squad” poster from Sandi Mamoli’s book. However, we wanted to make the message on that poster a little bit more positive.

Participants Cards

At a minimum, have a printed photo prepared for each participant and color-coded labels to indicated different roles.

We invested a little more time in making participants cards look like game cards and included:

  • a LinkedIn photo of the participant

  • their name

  • a current role

  • their proficiency and learning interests in the eleven team ingredients

  • a space to indicate their first, second, and third choices of the team (during the event).

Using our Team ingredients framework and Kahoot! survey platform we created a gamified self-assessment to collect the data for these cards.

Participants rated their skill levels and learning interests for each of the ingredients using the following scale:

3 – I can teach it

2 – I can do it

1 – I’d like to learn it

0 – Don’t make me do it

6. Run

It took us exactly one month to get to this point. On the day of the self-selection, the group walked into the room. The product managers, tech leads, and the facilitator were already there. The room was set and ready for action!

Initiative Pitches

Participants picked up their cards and settled in their chairs, prepared to hear the initiative pitches and to make their selections. This was one of the most attentive audiences we’ve seen! We didn’t even have to set the rules around device usage - everyone was giving the pitches their undivided attention.

After a short introduction from the facilitator and a “blessing” from one of the leaders, Product Managers and Tech Leads took the stage.

For each initiative, they presented their vision of the product, the technology stack, and their perspective on the team they’d like to build. It was impressive to see how each pair worked together to answer questions and inspire people. At the end of the pitches, we took a short break. It was a signal for observers to leave the room.

Two rounds of self-selection

After the break, Product Managers and Tech Leads took their places in the team corners. We ran two rounds of self-selection, ten minutes each.

During the first self-selection, round people walked around, checked the team formula, chatted with others, and placed their cards on a poster of their first-choice team. Contractors and others, who didn’t want to make a selection in the first round, placed their cards on the “Available to help” poster. At the end of the round, each tech lead was asked to give an update on the following:

  • Was the team complete after this round?

  • Were there any ingredients or skills missing in the team after the first round?

During the second round, there were more conversations, more negotiations, and more movement between the teams. Some people agreed to move to their second-choice teams to help fill the project needs. The “Do what’s best for the company” poster served as a good reminder during this process.

The debrief revealed that three teams out of four had been fully formed by the end of the second round. The last team had more open spots still. It was decided that those will be filled later by hiring new people with the required skillset.

The self-selection event was completed. It was a time to celebrate and to start planning the work with the new teams.

7. Support New Teams

Transition Plan

With the self-selection exercise, our teams formed a vision for their ideal “end state”. Afterward, we needed to figure out how to achieve that vision. Tech leads worked with their new team members to figure out the systems they supported, the projects they were involved with at that time and mapped out the transition plan.

Team Working Agreement

Once all members of the new teams were available to start, we facilitated Liftoff workshops to help them get more details on the product purpose, establish team working agreements and help the teams understand the larger organizational context.

Coaching/Measuring Happiness

Our experiment didn’t stop there. We continue checking in with the team through coaching, measuring happiness (we use gamified Spotify Squad Health check), and facilitating regular retrospectives.

What’s next?

As our roadmap continues to change and as we get more people joining the organization, we may consider running self-selection again with a new group. Or we may decide to move away from “large batches” of self-selection and experiment with a flow of Dynamic Reteaming.

Time will tell. One thing is clear - we will continue learning and experimenting.

Curious? Want to try it with your teams?

We hope this blog post inspired you to think about self-selection for your teams. You can find our facilitation instructions here.

Great books that inspired us

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