The Self-Management Hype: Aren't We Just Reinventing The Wheel?
We read a lot about the rise of self-managing teams in contemporary organizations. Although the label, self-managing teams, has gained traction in recent management literature, it is by no means a novel phenomenon.
Recently we made a deep dive into academic research on self-managing teams. (One of us started a PhD on the subject.) To our surprise, we tracked the idea back to 1941. What we found shows the concept of self-managing teams is really nothing new.
The academic roots
Almost from the birth of modern organization studies, researchers have argued for a more decentralized and democratic approach. Even in the 1940s, theorists suggested alternatives to ‘bureaucracy’s confining routines and rules.’
The academic roots, and empirical evidence of, self-managing teams can be traced to the 1950s when British scientist, Eric Trist, reported on self-regulating coal miners in his now famous article, ‘Some Social and Psychological Consequences of the Longwall Method of Coal Getting.’
Subsequently, Trist’s work was built upon. Examples include Scandinavian experience with semi-autonomous teams in the 1970s, self-managing teams at the American Gaines Dog Food plant in the 1980s, and self-managing organizations like Morning Star, Zappos, Valve, FAVI, Haier, Handelsbanken, and Buurtzorg in more recent publications.
Almost from the birth of modern organization studies, researchers have argued for a more decentralized and democratic approach.
In older academic papers, researchers advocate that ‘organizations must radically change their managerial structure by converting to worker-run teams and thereby eliminate unneeded supervisors and other bureaucratic staff.’ This particular statement originates from Professor James Barker’s 1993 article ‘Tightening the Iron Cage, concertive control in self-managing teams'. Although published more than two decades ago, the statement sounds suspiciously like advice from the top-notch management gurus of today, right?
If we delve further into Barker’s landmark article, he makes the case even stronger: ‘workers in a self-managing team will experience day-to-day work life in vastly different ways than workers in a traditional management system. Instead of being told what to do by a supervisor, self-managing workers must gather and synthesize information, act on it, and take collective responsibility for those actions.’
Revival of an old concept
As illustrated by Barker, the rise of self-managing teams in management literature could be better described as the revival of ancient self-managing team concepts.
Other familiar concepts described by Barker that would fit modern day management literature like a glove.
‘Self-managing team workers generally are organized into teams of 10 to 15 people who take on the responsibilities of their former supervisors. The team’s members are cross-trained to perform any task the work requires and also have the authority and responsibility to make the essential decisions necessary to complete the function’.
‘Usually, a self-managing team is responsible for completing a specific, well-defined job-function, whether in production or service industries. Along with performing their work functions, members set their own work schedules, order the materials they need, and do the necessary coordination with other groups.’
‘Top management often provides a value-based corporate vision that team members use to infer parameters and premises (norms and rules) that guide their day-to-day actions. Guided by the company’s vision, the self-managing team members direct their own work and coordinate with other areas of the company.’
‘Besides freeing itself from some of the shackles of bureaucracy and saving the cost of low-level managers, the self-managing company also gains increased employee motivation, productivity, and commitment. The employees, in turn, become committed to the organization and its success.’
These claims sound even more modern-day when the author argues ‘that self-managing teams make companies more productive and competitive by letting workers manage themselves in small, responsive, highly committed, and highly productive groups.’
organizations the wheel
Subsequently, the push for flatter organization structures became something of an obsession in the 1980s and 1990s business literature. Academic researchers, together with influential business consultants like Peter Drucker and Tom Peters, urged their readers to start de-bureaucratizing their firms.
Some three decades ago, those scholars unleashed a flood of literature announcing the approaching doom of bureaucracy and hierarchy. All of them proposed more human-centered organization designs, built on agile structures and practices.
Their central argument? ‘By cutting out bureaucracy and rules, organizations can flatten hierarchies, cut costs, boost productivity, and increase the speed with which they respond to the changing business world.’
The topic then seemed to vanish from academic interest for many years, only to be picked up again more recently by a new generation of gurus styling it as a ‘novel and exotic phenomenon’.
Calling self-managing teams a novel phenomenon is utter nonsense, as we have shown this concept is firmly grounded in academic literature.
What seems to have changed, however, is that self-management is now actually being ‘practiced’ more visibly, and with more mainstream traction.
What seems to have changed, however, is that the concept is now actually being ‘practiced’ more visibly, and with more mainstream traction. It is something we happily witness more and more in the Bucket List companies we have visited.
Nevertheless, it should be clear by now that many contemporary self-managing organizations are not only reinventing their organization, they are just as much reinventing the wheel.
Ready for more revolutionary content? Subscribe to the newsletter.
> Calling self-managing teams a novel phenomenon is utter nonsense
Did anybody really say that or you guys are modern-day Don Quixote fighting with imaginary windmills?
> it should be clear by now that many contemporary self-managing organizations are not only reinventing their organization, they are just as much reinventing the wheel.
Ah, now I understand why you did the well-researched debunking of "self-managing TEAMS" as novelty: just to conflate that term with self-managing ORGANIZATIONS that manages complexity on an order of magnitude larger scale.
Thanks for your message. Good point. We are talking about the broader phenomenon of self-management which covers both self-managing teams and self-managing organizations. In the academic literature they don't talk much about the term self-managing organizations (only till recently by Amy Edmondson), neither about the term reinventing organizations (which for us is not a direct synonym for Frederic Laloux's book). They rather talk about things as post-bureaucratic organizations, democratic organizations or humanistic organizations.
I hope that answers your questions.
I (Joost) read many (contemporary) popular management books over the last three years and only recently found out that self-management was already described in academic literature for decades. I don't see the point in naming and shaming, so there will be no particular names. I hope you understand.
Thank you Rebels for these substantiated reflections.
One (main) comment and one question (on such a gigantic issue).
The comment. The point in Barker's paper is that peer, team-based control, in more subtle and much stronger than bureaucratic control, and the data he shows and comments are consistent with Max Weber predictions about the evolution of modern organizations toward increasing rationalization and control. In brief, self-managing teams might not be a step towards employees' greater autonomy but instead a step toward greater organizational control, although in a different, more subtle, and more effective version.
The question: what shall we infer form this historical, periodical, iterations of claims for more self-management? Shall we hope for more and more self-management in our organizations until, some day in the future, those claims will be unnecessary. Or shall we take those iterative claims as a proof that, notwithstanding mainstream discourse on organizational adaptability, bureaucratic predetermination and discretionary action always come together?
The main difference I see between a bureaucratic organisation and one that self manages is the level of contribution from the employees. Typically bureaucratic organisations have rules, fixed processes and manuals, where self managed organisations prioritise vision, values and guidelines about the outcome they desire to create for their customers, and wider stakeholders.
The strict rules about safety, care, regulation and risk management are necessary and in a self managing environment are often more rigorously adhered to because their relationship to the desired outcome is more obvious to all
There is also the concept of the Learning Organisation which relates to what you write. Peter Senge has a lot of the concepts in his thinking 20 years back in time as well.
Another thought: I feel that in the older times the approach was more influenced by the political left and today it is more seen as logical approach to improve outcomes.
Great stuff. The wheel continues to be reinvented by every next generation. The difference here is that the level of emancipation, self-respect, guts and education has risen tremendously so workers can contribute in an effective way in the design of the business process they execute together.
Now it's more about 'Who' is reinventing the wheel! It's the end-to-end process team instead of the technocratic expert or manager who dictates what others must do. This is by the way a confronting responsibility where people need some guidance with to feel safe in their new role, not only to work in the process but also to periodically work on the process. (Experiment, Design, Test, Evaluate, Learn)
Thank you for sharing as always CRs, I enjoy your work, but I do feel this post is a little unbalanced and a tad misplaced. For me whether something is new or old is irrelevant - it deserves respect. Just because self-management was first touted as a concept many years ago, does not mean that the wheel is being reinvented today. It just means the wheels have tyres on that have more chance of gaining traction based on the world of work being ready for them.
If you think these ideas were only invented in the 1940s or '50s, i urge you to read Jessica Prentice's article, "The Most Dangerous Notion in 'Reinventing Organizations'" (see https://medium.com/@jessicajprentice/the-most-dangerous-notion-in-reinventing-organizations-9032930295e2). She points out how the Ohlone indigenous people of California, and many other First Nations groups, were organized in a teal manner for centuries. After examining how this is so, she arrives at this final remark (quote):
"I think it’s time for us to take a hard look at our Western cultural fantasies about progress and “new discoveries” and at the ongoing hubris of the Western worldview that shores up these delusions. I look to Laloux not because he is the latest discoverer of new lands, but because he is an intelligent, articulate, and intuitive observer and promoter of better ways of managing our affairs. I wholeheartedly salute the “re-interpreters” of our age who are inspired by Teal concepts. We live, most assuredly, in a time needing profound re-storying. But: will we have the cultural humility to admit that many peoples had found their way to “Teal” arrangements long before us, or will we continue with the hubris that we are “pioneers” and “heroes,” discovering another New World?"
Regarding "reinventing the wheel", and along similar lines with the comments others have already posted about this, I like to say sometimes reinventing the wheel is necessary in order to appreciate the value of round.
I think it's great that this topic is continuing to come up and be 're-discovered.' The value in rediscovering concepts like this and viewing them with fresh eyes lies in the potential for innovative application of new technologies to old problems and solutions. Maybe it's time to revisit MBO while we're at it.
Maybe it's more about rediscovering than reinventing, after all self-organising principles have been applied at Toyota in 1960's, explained in "organic organisations" by Burns and Stalker in the 1950's and indeed go all the way back to Lao Tse or ancient Taoist texts, so maybe what's novel is an apparent attempt to resurrect these principles in some of our organisations (so a cyclical phenomenon rather than evolutionary one, I might add). Maybe it's time to re-read Confucius with a fresh pair of eyes?
In a previous post we introduced the concept of “middle-manager-less-organizations” (MMLOs for short). These companies run their businesses successfully without a middle management layer. Large and small, they point the way forward for organizations wanting to go beyond the traditional hierarchical/bureaucratic model, a way of organizing that is increasingly outdated and has deep roots in ‘industrial age thinking’.
In 2005, Vineet Nayar became the leader of Indian IT and consulting company HCL Technologies. As a result, 25,000 people looked up to him and waited for his direction. But there was a problem. "I knew in my heart that we as leaders had done nothing to win the trust of our employees."