Want to build and support a self-managed team that calls the shots? Here's all you need to know about getting a self-managing team to a great start.
Autonomy and empowerment are becoming key concepts in contemporary business environments. Many organizations - particularly software development companies - are shifting to a new organizational structure, implementing self-managing teams.
Building self-managed teams can boost performance and unlock creativity, freeing people from the pressure and constraints of traditional management hierarchy. However, it also involves risks and can be a pretty frustrating experience if applied wrongly.
So let’s discuss the nature of self-managed teams in more detail.
A self-managed team (also known as self-organized) is a group of employees who work collaboratively and share responsibilities without the direct supervision of a manager. This team consists of interdependent individuals who autonomously regulate their behavior, possess a variety of work skills, and have decision-making power. They monitor their own performance and fulfill management tasks.
Such a team model rejects a traditional hierarchy, so team members plan processes, workflow, and schedules autonomously and make commitments to each other rather than to an external leader. This way, the focus here is on the outcome, and not on the title.
In his book “Reinventing Organizations”, Frederick Laloux describes self-managing teams as one of the three main breakthroughs (along with purpose and wholeness) of Teal Organizations – revolutionary companies that are based on the principles of employee self-expression and authenticity.
Yet, even though we may have an impression that self-managing teams are typical only to contemporary organizations, they are not a novel phenomenon. Theoretical alternatives to traditional bureaucratic systems were suggested back in the 1940s, and the empirical evidence can be traced back to the 1950s when a British scientist Eric Trist wrote an article about self-regulating coal miners.
Further examples include Scandinavian semi-autonomous companies which existed in the 1970s and self-managing teams at the American Gaines Dog Food plant in the 1980. Among more recent examples, we can find companies like Morning Star, Zappos, FAVI, Valve, and Buurtzorg.
This is why, according to Joost Minnaar, a co-founder of “Corporate Rebels”, the rise of self-managed teams nowadays is rather the revival of older concepts, so we might be trying to reinvent a wheel:
What seems to have changed, however, is that self-management is now actually being “practiced” more visibly, and with more mainstream traction.
Self-managed teams can be different. First of all, they fall into three categories based on the level of autonomy and purpose:
As an organizational structure, a self-managed team has the following characteristics:
Team members have equal rights, and no one has authority over the others. There is no external leader - team leaders may be included in the structure, but their role will not be that of a conventional manager. They will rather function like mentors and facilitate team-building.
Shared leadership means that power is decentralized and distributed horizontally, while in the traditional management system, it flows from top-down – from the leader at the hierarchy top down to middle-link managers and other employees. This means that the mechanism used to direct individual behavior is peer control:
Team members help regulate non-productive individuals when team rewards depend on peer evaluation. On the other hand, peer pressure may become an inhibitor when strict norms are imposed leaving no room for dissent or creative ideas. - Nina Christina Magpili Smith and Pilar Pazos, Self-Managing Team Performance: A Systematic Review of Multilevel Input Factors
In a self-managed team, roles are clearly defined, and everyone knows what they are working on. Team members assign and perform tasks, not waiting for guidance from the top and taking complete ownership of their results.
Typically, the members of a self-managing team have different expertise and functional experience.
Unlike traditional management models, where a decision is made and authorized by a leader, self-managed teams empower employees to participate in all or most aspects of the decision-making process. This way, decisions are made internally, and everyone can contribute.
Frederick Laloux mentions the following example. In 1990 Jean-François Zobrist, the CEO of FAVI, faced a tough situation: there wasn't enough work to keep all the employees in the company. The obvious solution was to fire some workers. Yet, he let the employees talk. One man suggested keeping everybody but shortening work time to 3 weeks per month. This idea was accepted well, and a decision was made very fast.
In self-managed teams, people are also encouraged to make individual decisions, without group approval, on condition they have consulted with a subject-matter expert and those who will be directly impacted.
All employees are collectively responsible for the final product, and take full ownership of the individual tasks assigned specifically to them. Self-managing teams achieve this through collaborative task allocation (deciding who is best equipped to work on specific tasks) and mutual accountability (where team members hold one another accountable for their individual contributions toward team goals)
The benefit of allowing a team to self-organize isn’t that the team finds some optimal organization for its work that a manager might have missed. Rather, it is that by allowing the team to self-organize, it is encouraged to fully own the problem of performing its work. - Mike Cohn.
Giving your team the authority to self-manage can have a significantly positive effect on the team's success. Let’s mention the most obvious benefits of self-management:
No doubt, self-organization is a powerful concept. Yet, just like traditional teams, self-managed ones face challenges that are not always easy to overcome.
In his article “Why Self-Organizing Teams Do Not Work” Cliff Berg, the co-founder and managing partner of Agile 2 Academy, emphasizes that even though self-management is a central pillar of the Agile movement, it is not a silver bullet.
According to the Agile Manifesto, “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.” Sarcastically pointing out that the title of his article sounds like heresy, Berg explains that this doesn't always work:
While the Agile Manifesto is brilliant, and has largely stood the test of time, it is not perfect: it was not burned into a stone by the Heavens. It was created by a group of people, and it can be wrong.
So let’s analyze why self-managed teams are not perfect:
Self-organization… does not mean letting people do whatever they want to do. It means that management commits to guiding the evolution of behaviors that emerge from the interaction of independent agents instead of specifying in advance what effective behavior is. - Philip Anderson, The Biology of Business
In a self-managed team, members plan, organize, and monitor their own work. Everyone performs their own duties and responsibilities, working to achieve the common project goals. Since there is no single manager, the whole team is in charge of the management process. All members determine operating procedures, set goals and formulate a vision, and also perform evaluations.
Frederick Laloux describes self-managed teams through the following criteria:
Everyone has access to information. Even the most sensitive information is not kept secret.
Salaries are often self-set, and salary differences are narrow. There are no promotions in the usual sense.
Roles get rearranged on the agreement and can evolve over time. Some roles can be created, some can be removed, and some will stay permanent. Usually, roles in self-managing teams are not tied to work descriptions.
Within financial guardrails, members of the self-organizing team can spend resources the way they find appropriate.
If someone fails to do their job well, he gets confronted by the team. A person who doesn't fit in won't stay long.
Typically, self-managing teams do not schedule regular daily or weekly meetings, preferring to hold them when necessary. For these meetings to be productive, there should be a facilitator – yet, this does not have to be an external leader. Every team member can assume this role in turn, facilitating a particular meeting.
The work of such a group is a great illustration of the Performing Stage of team development, according to Tuckman, with its well-established organizations, clear roles, and well-tested problem-solving techniques.
Effective organization is evolved, not designed. It aims to create an environment in which successful division of labor and routines not only emerge but also self-adjust in response to environmental changes. - Philip Anderson, The Biology of Business
An organizational culture that supports autonomy and collective decision-making prepares fertile soil for the implementation of self-management methods. And vice versa, if your teams are used to diametrically different models like traditional top-down management, switching to self-management without any previous training can be a risky experiment.
To build self-managed teams, it will be helpful to provide a new team with some initial guidance. Once team members feel comfortable enough working to a new rhythm, a leader can minimize the level of supervision.
Below you can find some advice on how to build a successful self-managed team:
This is the advice from Edwin Jansen for any business wondering how to get started with self-organization. Edwin acknowledges that there will be people who are advocates and people who just don’t get it. Start with the advocates and build from there.
Create a small self-organizing team from ‘people who believe what you believe’. From there, share your successes and see the idea ripple out across the organization. ‘If it works, you won’t need to push it,’ says Edwin. ‘It’ll grow’.
Some people are like “glue” and pull a team together and keep it there. - Mike Cohn.
Not everyone is able to work independently. When looking for possible team members, think of highly motivated employees who have strong communication and time-management skills – these people will be the best fit for a self-managed team.
Mike Cohn, the founder of Mountain Goat Software, underlines that who is on the team influences how the entire team will self-organize. He recommends considering the following factors while choosing the people for a self-managed team:
Think about which kind of self-managed team you’d like to build – fully autonomous, limited supervision, or temporary. A number of factors influence this decision - for example, the nature of the work. Routine tasks may be easy to hand over to a fully autonomous team, whereas more complex projects may need to retain some element of supervision. Other considerations include the clarity of the work and its goals, and the skill level of team members.
Your chosen model needs to align with the specific context of your organization and the jobs to be done. Cultural issues - such as the level of trust and psychological safety that exist in your organization - may also determine whether you’re ready for fully autonomous teams to thrive yet. You can always start with temporary self-organization, or limited supervision, before building towards full autonomy.
Your colleagues must understand what the company can gain from self-management and what unique benefits it can bring for each individual worker.
You should be ready that some people will resist change. Researchers say that the reasons for resistance include fear of the unknown, lack of experience and job security, and a preference for structure. A clear explanation of the self-management philosophy will reduce resistance.
Some benefits to communicate to colleagues include:
Self-organization doesn't mean a complete lack of structure or guidelines. Guardrails help self-organized teams work productively towards organizational goals. Aim for minimal viable policies. Enough to help teams work safely, reduce risk, and align their efforts to overall business objectives. But not so prescriptive that it undermines the concept of self-organization.
Make sure everyone on the team knows what the project desired outcome is, and what they personally are expected to do. Give the project team just a few goals to start with. Assign roles and define who is in charge of what.
Management establishes enough checkpoints to prevent instability, ambiguity, and tension from turning into chaos. At the same time, management avoids the kind of rigid control that impairs creativity and spontaneity. - Takeuchi & Nonaka, “The New New Product Development Game"
You’ll need to provide your team with a budget and the resources to accomplish their project. Assigning budget to self-organizing teams is a balancing act between autonomy and financial accountability. You want to trust the team to determine how budget and resources are best spent - but you also need to be sure they’re being used responsibly.
Without recourse to a leader for final approval of decisions, a self-organizing team needs a decision-making framework that provides a way to collectively achieve consensus. Otherwise, there is a risk that decision-making will simply breakdown or become dominated by a particular personality.
In our webinar on Putting the Human into Resource Management, Edwin Jansen shared how ‘generative decision-making’ works in his a self-organizing business.
In this way, the group makes contributes their expertise and makes a joint decision. Edwin explains that approval means ‘I can live with that’ - proposals don’t have to be perfect, just safe and suitable enough to try.
To facilitate and accelerate this process, Edwin and his team use Loomio, a platform to share and feedback on ideas.
Communication in self-managing teams isn’t just about the tools you’ll use, but the principles you’ll follow.
Active listening - for example - ensures all team members have a chance to be heard and have their views taken into account. You should also celebrate achievements and give credit where it is due. These principles amplify the benefits of the self-managing team by encouraging innovation, ownership, and engagement.
Regular communication is essential, especially in remote environments where individuals could become isolated without contact with a designated manager. Ensure your team has scheduled meetings and regular check-ins. Establish a collaborative meeting agenda. It’s important that everyone on the team updates colleagues on their progress and has an opportunity to ask for support.
In fully remote teams, consider how people in different timezones can all contribute equally. Are actual meetings always necessary or could asynchronous working methods deliver better results?
In a traditional team structure, conflicts can always be resolved by a team leader. For example, if you cannot agree on how to shift deadlines, you can ask a leader to step in. However, this wouldn’t work for a self-managed team.
Amit Maimon, SVP of product innovation at ADP, mentions three ways of successful conflict resolution in a self-managing team:
Review team performance regularly every few weeks or months, to either suggest ways to improve or offer positive feedback.
KPIs for self-organizing teams will vary depending on the nature of your business and your reason for moving to self-organizing teams. But could include metrics such as
Include regular progress reviews, feedback mechanisms, and both qualitative and quantitative measures to ensure self-organizing teams and thriving and delivering as expected.
Implementing self-managed teams can be a great practice if you apply the right principles. Don’t be radical – see if your organization is ready for such changes. Try to make the transition as painless as possible, approaching it with judgment. This way, you will create conditions for your team to achieve great business results and expand employees' experience at the same time.
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