If I ask you to envisage a team in any government, business or not-for-profit organisation, no doubt a manager will be part of the picture.
What would happen if that manager walked away from the team and left team members to their own devices?
You’d expect chaos, frustration and paralysis.
And yet thousands of managers are doing just that – often in highly successful businesses.
Frederic Laloux’s recent groundbreaking book Reinventing Organisations focuses on successful businesses (including Morning Star, W.L. Gore and Semco) using self-managing practices with incredible results.
GoreTex has functioned without managers since the 1960s and has become a global success.
All of these organisations boast impressive statistics. For example, Morning Star enjoys strong growth, solid profits and extremely low employee turnover.
What do these high-profile, complex businesses see in self-managing teams?
Self-managing teams (otherwise known as ‘self-organising, ‘self-regulating’ or ‘self-directed’ teams) are known to boost productivity and motivate employees.
The magic is in the ownership experienced by each team member, which originates from the power to make decisions.
Self-managing teams are basically left to run themselves. Team members are in control of their day-to-day practices. Tasks, responsibilities, decisions and communication are all managed within the team, without the involvement of an external manager.
With that autonomy comes great responsibility. Team members are also fully accountable for the team’s results.
How do self-managing teams avoid the chaos, frustration and paralysis that we would expect? How does ‘self-managed’ not become ‘disorganised’, ‘disenfranchised’ and ‘disheartened’?
Establishing self-managing teams is challenging. Normally a manager acts as the team leader and is responsible for defining the goals, methods, and functioning of the team. With no single ‘manager’, management activities are shared between team members.
Naturally there are a large number of decisions to made – such as deciding which tasks and responsibilities will be allocated to whom.
Self-organising teams tend to use one of three decision making processes: consensus – where decisions are made according to what is agreed by everyone, democracy – where votes are taken and the option ‘first past the post’ is chosen or an advice process.
The advice process has a lot to offer. It is a rarely used decision making process that can step self-managing teams into greatness. Frederic Laloux describes the advice process in detail in Reinventing Organisations: wise decisions can be made by consulting the people who are knowledgeable and / or affected by a decision, without an imbalance of influence by poor decision makers.
The second incredible feature of self-managed teams is the way they set goals, which is in one of two ways.
In traditional, hierarchical organisations – the style most of us are familiar with – self-managing teams work toward goals that are set for them by outside leadership.
In other organisations, self-managing teams are often empowered to set their own goals. After all, team members can access information about customer feedback and requirements directly, not filtered through a supervisor. When self-managing teams have access to relevant information – full transparency and clarity about the strategic context – they are able to set responsive, client-centred goals that are consistent with the organisation’s overall direction.
Self-organising team members tend to share a sense of pride in their joint accomplishments – their performance tends to be judged on the basis of the team’s achievements rather than each individual’s achievements. Team-based performance measures facilitate a higher degree of collaboration, rather than competition.
This sense of common purpose and team focus, rather than individual focus, motivates self-managing teams to find ways to resolve interpersonal difficulties. Training helps: successful self-managing teams place great emphasis on teaching people how to give feedback, resolve interpersonal conflict and communicate effectively. Team members become experts at conflict resolution.
These incredible teams are able to make wise decisions, act responsively, collaborate and work well together.
However self-managing teams are met by both enthusiasm and skepticism.
Making the shift from a traditional hierarchical organisation into a self-managing team is not simple. For some it is extremely challenging.
Self-managing teams are not empowered, they are powerful. Managers and team members alike can find this level of responsibility confronting.
For self-managing teams to work, these special conditions need to be in place:
- Highly cooperative goals – team members are more likely to discuss their opposing views open-mindedly and constructively in the absence of competitive goals.
- Protection from autocratic decision-making – leaders play a role in ‘buffering’ the team from the inevitable cultural push towards command and control.
- Clear context – leaders play a second role in keeping team members up to date with the organisation’s strategic direction
- Transparency – ideally team members will have full access to all the information that could affect their decisions, from finance to contracts to human resourcing.
- Interpersonal skills – communication, collaboration and conflict resolution need to be specifically taught
- Management skills – budgets, workflows and role allocation are managed by all. Managers and leaders may need to become coaches (i.e. advisors without decision-making power).
- Great people – it can be important to give at least as much attention to attitude as to skills when selecting team members.
Self-managing teams are in fact an old phenomenon – the concept originated in the 1940s at a research centre in the UK and gained popularity in the late 1980s and 1990s. More recently, agile methodology uses self-managing teams, referring to them as ‘self-organising’.
Self-managing teams are now re-emerging in popularity, thanks in no small part to Reinventing Organisations.
They are not a quick fix.
Nonetheless there is a lot to be gained when leaders challenge two centuries of business culture and view their team members as just as capable as themselves.