How to Become A Self-Managing Team
Organizations worldwide are steadily realizing the need for a serious upgrade in the way they work—and interest in self-management is skyrocketing as a result. In this post, I'll share some of the wisdom we picked up during our visits to some of the world's leading self-managing organizations.
Many people assume that self-management equals 'no structure'. I used to think so too when we started Corporate Rebels. However, I've learned that that's actually not true. Or, to be more precise, that's not how the most successful self-managing companies look at self-management.
Yes, clearly there is a lack of hierarchical and top-down structures in these companies. However, there's not a lack of structure in general. In fact, I (nowadays) strongly believe that many self-managing teams and companies have much more structure and clarity when it comes to their way of working than traditional organizations.
Create a handbook
Many highly progressive teams and organizations document their way of working through a handbook that spells out crucial elements of how work gets done there. The handbook helps to create clarity within the team and is an excellent way to onboard new staff members.
The company handbook generally includes topics such as:
- Roles & responsibilities
- Meeting structures
- Conflict resolution
- Working rhythm
Let's look at how self-managing firms approach each of these.
Redistribute roles and responsibilities
As the name obviously implies, a self-managing team is a team that manages itself. This means that there isn't a manager who takes care of the typical managerial tasks such as coordination, decision-making, strategy setting, assigning tasks, reviewing performance, etc.
However, negating the standard "manager role" doesn't mean these activities are no longer performed. Rather than one single individual picking up these activities, the aforementioned tasks are instead distributed among the various team members.
Self-managing teams prefer to work with roles instead of job descriptions. Work is distributed in roles, and people pick up the ones that fit their talents and interests.
If you're a traditional team that wants to become self-managed, here's a powerful way to start working with these roles:
- Create an activity list: Forget about typical job descriptions. Get the team together and make a list of all tasks the team needs to execute to be successful (and don't forget the managerial tasks!).
- Cluster activities into roles: The second step is clustering. As a team, highlight activities that are either similar or relate to each other. For example: posting on social media, sending out newsletters, and posting new blog posts are all related. Clustering similar tasks suggests roles in a clear way. For instance, the group of activities mentioned above could become the “publishing role”.
- Choose your role: Once you've created all the required roles for your team, let team members select the roles that appeal to them most. This is important: don’t consult job descriptions. And don’t let anyone appoint people to roles. Ensure choices are based on intrinsic motivation.
- Rotate unpopular roles: This part is inevitable. What do you do with roles nobody wants to pick up? Well, here's one idea: stop performing them altogether. Seriously. Throw them in the trash. However, if they really are crucial, you can rotate them among team members, outsource them, or hire someone who actually loves doing that role.
For more instructions on how to start working with roles, check out this post.
One particularly important feature of the traditional organization is centralization. In many cases, employees have to go up the hierarchy when important decisions need to be made. This blatantly suggests that decision-making competence corresponds with the position in the hierarchy.
Self-managing companies believe this is absolute nonsense. Autocratic decision-making belongs in the past.
They replace autocracy by implementing alternative decision-making processes. In most cases, these self-managing firms opt for consensus, consent, or democratic decision-making.
- Consensus decision-making is about developing a decision in the best interest of the whole—a compromise that everyone agrees to.
- The aim of decision-by-consent is to quickly make a decision that is, in simple terms, good enough for now. If no one has a reasoned objection, the decision will be implemented.
- Democratic decision-making is well known. A group votes on various options. A majority vote decides the action. In short: the majority rules.
Each has its pros and cons (more on that in this article). Each self-managing team has to decide for itself which process is preferred.
Or you can do what many pioneers do: mix them up. This is what we've often seen within highly successful self-managing teams. It could, for example, look like this:
- Nearly all decisions: consent. Proceed ahead if no one has reasoned objections. If it doesn't work out, adapt as you go. In many cases, it's better to ask forgiveness rather than wait for permission.
- Unique, high-impact decisions: consensus. When decisions impact everyone to a high degree, strive for consensus. Some examples include where to rent office space, or perhaps decisions on huge investments that will influence everyone's profit share.
For more on distributed decision-making, check out this article.
Run better meetings
Another thing to adjust when becoming a self-managing team is how you run meetings. Ditch those frustrating meetings dominated by power-hungry managers and replace them with engaging, fun, and highly participatory ones.
For example, you could start using sociocratic meeting structures, which look roughly look like this:
- Check-in: Let everyone share how they feel when they enter the meeting.
- Consent to agenda: Go through the agenda, add items if needed, and consent to the final agenda.
- Discuss topics: Go through the various agenda items. Let each item owner clarify if they want to (1) decide, (2) get advice, or (3) inform.
- Check-out: Let attendees share how they feel and how they can improve.
Also, it's best to appoint a facilitator and note-taker to ensure a smooth meeting process. You'll learn that this structure allows for much more action and even some fun. Plus, they'll be so efficient that there's no need to cram your calendar with endless meetings.
Another element you'll definitely want to create is a conflict-resolution process. When you're in a self-managing team, you don't have the childish option to ask your boss if they can interfere in your team's conflicts; it's up to the team members to fix it themselves.
Self-managing teams must create a clear process for this. Check out the accountability process at self-managing tomato processing company Morning Star for a solid example.
If you ever have a conflict with someone at work (and you likely will at some point), here's the process to solve it:
- Have a direct conversation with the person: Anyone who notices performance or integrity issues with another colleague is required to directly discuss the issue with that colleague. No gossiping.
- Third party mediator: If two colleagues don't resolve the issue, they can bring in a mediator. The mediator needs to be someone trusted by both colleagues. 3. Panel of colleagues: If any difference of opinion is still not resolved, then becomes necessary to convene a panel of colleagues to hear both sides and stay in the conversation until a resolution is reached.
- Designated arbitrator: If the discussion becomes deadlocked, then a designated arbitrator participates in the debate and renders a final decision. At some point, all disputes must come to an end.
For more details (and a variation) on the process, check out this post.
Give better feedback
In traditional organizations, feedback generally takes the form of a miserable annual performance appraisal. The manager has all the power, as they are the one who decides who is over-performing and who is under-performing.
There's no place for such a toxic power balance in self-managing teams. As a result, self-managing teams need to learn how to give and receive high-quality feedback. It can be challenging, but it's vital to boost engagement and performance—even more so in self-management.
So, how do you properly do this?
You can start by letting people regularly (once per month or quarter) share what they feel their colleagues should stop, start, or continue doing to improve the way they work. It’s simple. It’s actionable. And it includes something often overlooked: praise for stuff they do well.
While it may feel uncomfortable to give direct feedback at first, you'll learn over time that practice leads to (some sort of) perfection.
More feedback tips (from Netflix) can be found here.
Establish fixed working rhythm
Another critical thing to make self-management work is the introduction of a fixed working rhythm. It helps immensely to have a clearly defined cadence to guide the team's work.
Think about things in nature like seasons, tides, sunrises and sunsets—all of these help create a sense of order and strucutre in our lives, even if mostly subconsciously. Businesses can benefit heavily from a fixed operating rhythm. You'll want to include aspects like goal-setting, feedback sessions, progress reviews, and your team's most important meetings.
For example, the rhythm at a self-managing team might look like this:
- Weekly: Operational meetings to discuss progress, overcome obstacles, and make commitments
- Monthly: Sessions to discuss any less operational topics and to review progress on the strategical goals
- Quarterly: Feedback sessions to help team members develop and improve
- Yearly: Annual meetings to brainstorm, discuss, and agree on next year's strategy
Keep in mind that the working rhythm might look slightly different at each time. The most important thing is simply to have a rhythm of any sort. It keeps chaos at bay and helps the team focus.
How To Become A Self-Managing Team
Whether your team is looking to become genuinely self-managed or just interested in a significant upgrade, these vital elements of successful teams should get you started. In fact, if you do all of this stuff on a high level, you will most certainly boost engagement, productivity and fun within your team.
We recommend you start experimenting and give these ideas a try.
And, if you need a bit more inspiration, you can join the Corporate Rebels Academy to learn about these and other practices in thorough detail.
Let the revolution unfold!
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Traditional organizational scaling is broken. Most successful companies grow despite their organizational structures, not because of them. At balena, we make software that powers IoT devices, but we also strive to innovate on our internal structure just as much as we do with our commercial products.
Here's something that might interest many readers: a self-assessment to explore how self-managed your team actually is. As more and more companies experiment with self-management, it's good to understand whether you're exploring true self-management, or just a half-baked version of it.