Adopting New Ways Of Working: The Top 10 Tips

Written by in Transformations
- 8 min read

I have walked away from my desk with a racing heart. What on earth have I just done? Am I having a midlife crisis? Have I just committed career suicide?

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Time to check in with myself. Find a quiet space. Sit down. Deep, slow breaths.

Now, Stephen, how does it feel?

The truth is... it feels... wonderful. It feels liberating. It feels exciting. It feels right. It feels … what on earth is this feeling? That’s it!

I am feeling joyful.

I am feeling joyful at work. And it’s not even ten o’clock in the morning!

Declaring a change

Recently I wrote a blog (Declare A Change - Adventures in Self-Organizing Teams) that described my decision to experiment with self-management. Somewhat to my surprise, this blog travelled around the world gathering comments and acknowledgement as it went. It has led to debates about new ways of working, to speaking invitations and requests for coaching and consultancy. But I’m just a manager of a small team working in healthcare research in the UK. So what happened?

Many of the comments focussed on me being honest about how it feels to lead a change like this. And about how vulnerable it can make you feel. I think that resonated with people.

So this post deals with that. How to look after yourself and your colleagues as you transition to a new way of working. Here are my top ten tips.

Tip One - Educate Yourself

There are many wonderful resources available that discuss self-management and progressive organisations. Read the Corporate Rebels blogs, listen to the Leadermorphosis podcasts, read Reinventing Organisations, download the Happy Manifesto and follow all the links to see where they lead you. You are not the first person to take this step.

I spent a couple of months doing background research before I decided to make a change. I kept reading and listening until I felt I had the confidence to act.

Tip Two - Find Your Islands of Sanity

Lisa Gill pointed me in the direction of what Margaret Wheatley calls “Islands of Sanity”, people and places who share a similar mind-set. Progressive thinking in traditional organisations goes against at least 100 years of hierarchical machine-thinking. You are on this journey, full of excitement, but the people around you may not be. And they may not thank you for questioning everything they believe to be true. So make sure you have fellow travellers to turn to when the whole world seems to think you are crazy.

I reached out to experts for advice, joined online communities and talked to friends at length to clarify my thinking. I also used our internal Google platform to find people interested in new ways of working.

Tip Three - Look After Your Mental Health

In much of my reading this year I have been struck by how frequently I see references to meditation or mindfulness or yoga. It’s often between the lines, but many influential writers place personal importance on some kind of daily practice. Many progressive organisations encourage it in the workplace too. Don’t ignore this. I took deep breaths that first morning because I had returned to meditation while reflecting on the change I wanted to make. This will feel momentous for you personally, so take care on the journey. Don’t let the feelings become overwhelming.

I downloaded meditation apps, set reminders in my calendar and prioritised this in my life as much as possible. If I can’t meditate (I have four noisy kids) I run instead.

Tip Four - Take Care of Your People

When you are ready to go, don’t hesitate. Declare the change and step forward into a new way of being. Choose your moment and say what you want to say. Change what you want to change. Become who you want to become. Articulate it clearly and succinctly.

But remember, this will come as a surprise to your colleagues. They haven’t (yet) been reading, meditating, reflecting and growing. They will take time to adjust. Give them that time. Don’t push too hard. Take care of their feelings. That’s one of your most important jobs now.

I had long conversations with colleagues who didn’t initially enjoy the change, but I was careful not to rescue them from uncomfortable feelings, rather I tried to make it feel safe and encouraging to step forward and find new ways to work.

Tip Five - Embody the Change

If you are used to being the head of a hierarchy and you essentially give away your authority, you need to change your behaviour. This is tricky and subtle, but essential. It is helpful to articulate your values and emphasise those above targets or profit or whatever measures you use.

Think about how you carry yourself. Think about the language you use. Talk about your feelings allowing others to talk about theirs. Make sure you enable voices. Your responsibility now is to lead in a different way, to nurture and enable, not to direct and dictate.

I told my team I no longer considered myself a manager, rather as a team member with a special role. We banned the use of phrases like “boss”, “higher ups”, “those in charge” and acknowledged the experts whatever their grade. I sometimes get called “coach” now.

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Tip Six - Change the Way You Meet

You are probably used to chairing meetings. Or at least you are used to people deferring to your decisions. Experiment with different ways of meeting to ensure that the reflective or quieter members of your team can contribute. Liberating Structures is a good source of ideas for changing the way you talk and make decisions.

We divided up our work as equally and fairly as we could. We gave responsibility to pairs of people based on expertise, not salary grade. They are free to manage that workload, but report on progress to the rest of the team weekly.

Tip Seven - Make a Bold Change or Two

How do your team know that you mean what you say? That you are genuinely devolving power? That this isn’t a fad?

Do something quickly that signals a significant change. Open up the budgets. Remove yourself from a decision making position. Abandon your office if you have one.

I opened up our budgets and said that any member of staff could decide to spend any amount of money as long as the rest of the team agrees. This has led to fascinating changes in the way (for example) training is organised and distributed.

Tip Eight - Clarify Responsibility and Accountability

Successful self-management isn’t anarchy. If you remove top-down direction from decision making, you need to replace it with something else. Discuss this with your team. Ask them how they want to work. Be part of the discussion, but figure out a new way of working together.

We implemented an advice process. Anyone can invite the rest of the team to an advice session to check their direction. This has proved to be a really efficient way of solving problems together.

Tip Nine - Trust

Trust your colleagues to work well in new ways. Encourage them to trust one another. Trust that you are trying something with solid thinking behind it. Trust that it is okay to be trying something new. Trust that you’ll figure it out together. Trust your feelings. Trust that you can be truly honest and vulnerable and good people will support you.

I have found the best way to do this is to regularly use phrases like, “I trust you”, “I trust X”, “I trust that Y will do a good job”. But don’t use the phrase “trust me”; replace that with something like “tell me more about your thinking/feelings” and then listen, humbly.

Tip Ten - Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day, But Lay Some Bricks Everyday

You cannot transform an organisation of any size in a short period of time. You can’t take an off-the-shelf approach to this kind of change. Not everyone wants to work in a self-managed team. You’ll have to figure things out as you go. You’ll make mistakes often. You’ll fall back into old ways.

But then you’ll be honest and transparent about your errors. You will describe your feelings when things are not working. You’ll listen deeply to the views of your colleagues. You’ll coach people to a new understanding. Every day you will grow as a person. Every step you’ll improve as a team. And, together, you’ll enjoy the journey.

I am incredibly proud of the people I work with and delighted to see what they can do when they are recognised and supported to be the experts that they always were. I am privileged to be alongside them.


So, there you have it. My top ten thoughts on starting with self-management. It’s a fascinating, fun and rewarding thing to do. But it is also something that pulls at your emotions like no other way of working. So if you only remember one thing from this blog, remember this.

Deep breaths. Take deep, deep breaths. Everything is good. You will be fine. Good luck.

Do you have any additional tips to share? Or do you have any questions for Stephen? Drop them in the comments below.

Stephen Lock is a service and system improvement specialist and co-founder of Coffee Shop Consulting. He currently works in health research in the UK, but also has experience as a consultant, speaker & business coach in the IT and healthcare industries. You can find him on Twitter (@SGLocky) or LinkedIn.

Written by SGLocky
6 months ago


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Replies (11)

Laura Smith

Laura Smith

Lovely post guys! Super insightful and well written.

One question, Stephen, what was the biggest mistake you made? Any "dont's" to share?

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Great question Laura. My instinctive first reply is "don't panic!"

My biggest mistake was assuming that everyone want's to change the way we work as an organisation. My motivation for making changes like this is to help us do a better job. To improve the services we provide. And to have a happier team.

I didn't realise how much some people see the structures we use as a major part of their work and their identity. As a result, fellow managers can see a change like this as provocative, rebellious and destructive. So they respond emotionally and angrily.

I wish I had been better prepared for that push back. It hurt me. And then, on reflection I realised that my evangelism was hurting them. By being too overt I had provoked a political reaction.

I have to say that this hasn't been the case from almost everyone I know outside the organisation or junior members in the organisations.

But if I did it again, I'd tone it down a bit when talking to my peers :-)

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John Doe

John Doe

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Super useful - thank you!

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Thanks for this Stephen. Human and very helpful! Can you identify one "tipping point" for us? An example of something that changed/turned in your self management journey...when you realised your people had "got it" and felt that the traction was there? Thanks for your generosity in sharing your story.

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Thank you so much for this article, I feel so fetched! But not in a working environment, but more in a personal :) The working environment is already up and running in a very self managed way, but family and friends often don't understand what I keep "preaching" :)

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Hi Morag,

good question. I've a couple of thoughts.

Firstly, there were a couple of moments when it almost tipped back. When members of the team pushed back on the ideas. Or when I noticed they were struggling to take ownership. In those moments I had to dig deep emotionally. I had to resist the pressure to roll-back the changes to something more comfortable. Or to rescue somebody who wasn't getting it right.

With this kind of situation I find it helpful to consciously have an adult to adult state of mind. See this article to find out more about this and transactional analysis:

Secondly, I realised we'd hit a tipping point when one of the quieter members of the team asked to see me on a Friday afternoon. I knew it was to do with the new ways of working and expected some complaining. However, this person checked their understanding of what was being asked (it related to having ownership and autonomy) and then told me at length how wonderful it was. I was thanked over and over.

That was lovely.

Now I am certain that not everyone completely gets it or is totally happy with it. But, we've evolved ways of trying to check in with one another and to ask what needs to change and talked openly about how it will take a year for this to really work. So I think it's bedding in well. Recently I offered the chance of an away day to talk through any issues the team might have.

They said no, on the grounds that everything is working pretty well.

I think that's a pretty good sign, don't you? :-)

Take care, Stephen

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Thanks for your powerful contribution, Stephen!

I recently wrote a piece about removing status symbols. Did you ditch some of those as well? Were (or are) there privileges in your workplace? And if so, what were the effects?

Thanks and already looking forward to your next contribution!

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Tree Bressen

Tree Bressen

Pushback in response to evangelism is predictable. For more insight on those dynamics and ideas for how to work with them skillfully, i recommend Barry Johnson's work on Polarity Management. There's a book, trainings, etc.

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Thanks for your powerful contribution, Stephen!

I recently wrote a piece about removing status symbols. Did you ditch some of those as well? Were (or are) there privileges in your workplace? And if so, what were the effects?

Thanks and already looking forward to your next contribution!


HI Pim, I really enjoyed that piece you wrote.

In my case I didn't really have any physical status symbols to get rid of. I already sit with my team. We don't have special car parking spaces or privileges based on hierarchy.

So, I thought hard about the other forms of status I have. For example, I get to decide on the budget allocations, I get to sign off on training, I get to attend certain types of meetings.

Then I looked at how to make access to these things fairer. I've already mentioned how we've opened up the budget for discussion and now decide together how to spend on training and conferences so I won't repeat that.

But, another really powerful thing I did was to question my own privileged access to decision making meetings. For example, meetings that set the terms of a new project or where business decisions are made.

What I now do is ask myself if there is somebody in my team who is better placed to make inform those sorts of decisions (because they have more technical or detailed knowledge). Then, I say something like "I think it would be better if you invite X. She is the real expert in this area."

If at all possible I completely avoid that meeting so that nobody can defer to my place in the hierarchy and let my colleague take the opportunity to contribute. This can upset people a little (because it challenges preconceptions of status). But it is much more effective. It takes away lots of gateways and gives permission to people to act.

Oddly, I now attend meetings I didn't previously go to so that my team can get on with "real work". We talk openly about this sort of thing and joke that one of the few skills I have is attending meetings. At least, I think we are joking! :-)

I hope that answers your question.

Take care, Stephen

PS I think I am starting to form an idea of another blog. I'll let you and Joost know when I've got my head around it. If there's anything specific you'd like me to address, please ask.

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