The idea of self-managed teams might sound attractive to business leaders who feel over-burdened with decision-making. However, they may also wonder how the idea can work in practice. How do you stop teams descending into chaos without someone in charge? And how do you move from traditional hierarchical structures to self-management?
What are self-managed teams?
A self-managed team is a self-organised group of people who work together to get a job done with little supervision or with anyone ‘in charge’. It’s a step change from a traditional hierarchy, where the power is very much held by managers, and towards a more collaborative way of working, with shared decision-making.
Self-managed teams can either operate within a business that is still basically hierarchical in structure, or they can be part of a fully self-managed organisation where the hierarchy is completely replaced.
There are benefits to working this way, according to Nick Osborne, an entrepreneur, business consultant and certified coach in the Holacracy self-management system. Done well, he says, it can lead to a more engaged and responsive workforce, able to adapt to changing business environments. It can also prevent key decisions ‘bottlenecking’ in a leadership team overwhelmed with information. ‘You could have people on the front line making decisions that affect them, rather than people at the top feeding through decisions that often don’t work,’ Nick says.
This way of working also seems to be attractive to younger people, including millennials, looking for more autonomy and flexibility. ‘Talent management can be the sole reason why some companies adopt this self-organised way,’ Nick says.
What isn’t self-management
When people think about employees having an increased stake in the organisation they often think of a company like John Lewis, which operates an employee ownership model. However, this sort of company is still hierarchical in structure.
Remote working isn’t self management either. ‘We’ve spoken to a lot of business owners who think they’re running self-managed teams but what they’re actually running are autonomous remote teams,’ says Ally Maughan, founder of People Puzzles. ‘There are crossover principles but self-management goes much further in terms of control and decision making.’
How self-management works
The key to successful self-management, says Nick, is to have a clear framework in place. ‘If you remove a conventional hierarchy, and don’t replace it with anything, it will be chaotic,’ he says. ‘You have to replace it with a set of clear rules or processes that define how decision-making authority and other key features of an organisation will work.’
‘The phrase ‘self-management’ sounds very free, but actually the framework needs to be really robust,’ says Debra Lee, a Regional Director at People Puzzles. ‘You can’t simply take problems to the boss to resolve, you have to resolve them within the group.’
Nick demonstrates two basic ways of making decisions in a self-managed team, although there are others. ‘You can have shared decision-making, where everyone makes decisions together, via negotiation or by a vote. Or you can work within clear rules and specify when authority is distributed to certain people to make certain decisions, who don’t have to go back to the whole team to get permission.’ The Holacracy system that Nick trains in has a set of rules about how you agree this framework.
Self-management a vision of the future? – part two; talks through self managed teams in practice, and the key issues to consider.
If you’re interested in finding out more about self-management, watch Nick’s interactive tour and animated videos, or find out more about Holacracy or see examples of organisations practicing in the Enlivening Edge newsletter.