The  answer is (of course):  “It depends.” Self-management is a spectrum, not a point. How much self-management is right for a team depends on that team.

I see many teams in small companies and start-ups who self-manage. They set product goals, make commitments, manage their own work.  As organizations get bigger, they hire managers.  Managers take those responsibilities, and teams lose responsibility and initiative..  When I visit big, established companies, there’s almost always an assumption that teams require close supervision.

Are the people in start-up teams and big-established company teams essentially different?

Systems Shape Behavior

Some argue that start ups attract people with “entrepreneurial” and therefor fundamentally different from people who go to work in larger, established companies.  I’m ready to accept that people have different preferences for risk and stability. But, most companies employe adults.  Adults enter into contracts, choose mates, raise children, and make all sorts of important decisions.  Why do we expect that those very same adults need close supervision when they come to work?

Much of the work in growing self-managing teams is changing assumptions about people, It involves shifting the dynamic between managers and employees. Sometimes it requires undoing years of disempowerment. Declaring that teams empowered and self-managed doesn’t work.  And it often leads to a freak-out on both sides.

Going to Extremes

Sometimes I see teams that reject all direction and go their own way, declaring, “We are self-organizing.” Sometimes followed by “We don’t need managers.” This is a misunderstanding of what “self-management” means.

Teams exists within the organizational context. The team has a customer—someone who desires the product or service they create. If a team doesn’t have a customer who eagerly awaits its product, that’s a management problem.

On the other hand, some managers hear the word “self-organizing” and believe the team is on its own—that the manager has no role in supporting the team. That’s not the case, either. In fact, it’s a risky oversimplification.

Shift the Dynamic

Teams and their managers are in a relationship. Like every relationship they develop patterns of interaction. Some dynamics become self-reinforcing.

One of them looks like this:

The manager declares the team is empowered.  He waits for the team to start acting that way. He expects them to start making decisions and solving problems.

In the meanwhile, the team is wondering wether the manager really means it this time.  They hesitate, unsure what these new responsibilities are, or how to do them.

After waiting what feels like a long time, the manager steps in. He either pushes the team, or takes action himself.  I’ve heard some berate the team for not taking responsibility, just for good[?] measure.

This confirms what the team feared, that their manager didn’t really mean it when he delegated responsibility to them.

The cycle starts, and each spin through the circle chips away at trust.

Find a Balance

In reality, it’s a delicate balance, and the “right” level of self-management depends on the manager, the team, and the context. As a practical matter, managers who want the benefit of the team effect do need to navigate the balance and move towards self-management–stripping away the layers of disempowerment, growing skills and capabilities in the teams, and building trust on both sides of the manager/team relationship.  That’s a different path for every team and manager.

So,  here are some of the “depends on” factors that I think about….

Teams can take on management work in these areas:

  • Managing their own work and monitoring their own progress
  • Managing team membership
  • Setting direction within the organization

Managing Work and Monitoring Progress

For agile teams, this includes creating the iteration plan, breaking down the tasks and activities, tracking progress.  These teams aren’t relieved of the responsibility to report their status to management. They use a variety of mechanisms that make progress and problems visible.

Task management is a starting point. For some teams, this is as much self-management as they take on. This may make sense for teams who are together for a very short time.  

Managers can help teams take responsibility for managing their own work by refraining from continually asking about individual progress and from piling on more tasks.

If team members aren’t yet able to plan and monitor their own work, coach them to identify the steps and break tasks down into one- to two-day chunks of work. Then get out of the way.  Don’t step in and take over planning. Coach and show rather than do.

Deciding Membership

Some  teams manage their own membership throughout the life of the team. In some companies, management announces the projects, and people with the relevant skills and understanding of the project form their own teams.

I recommend that managers use a collaborative hiring process for self-organizing teams once they’ve formed. Sticking people onto a team without consulting existing team members is a recipe for ungelling the team. When the team is involved in hiring, they have greater commitment to supporting the new member.

Coaching People Off the Team

Some teams even coach members off the team, when it is clear there’s not a fit. Teams seldom have the authority to handle the contractual aspects of terminating employment. They involve their managers to ensure the termination is respectful and legal.

A colleague told me the following story. HIs team as a group committed to follow Extreme Programming practices. However, on developer consistently failed to stick to the agreement. Eventually, two team members spoke with him. The rogue developer threatened to find another job. His teammates offered to help him buff up his résumé and recommend him. He departed within a week—no manager involved. The new way of working wasn’t a fit for him, and all recognized it.

That’s far from a typical case, and don’t count on this happening early in the life of a team, or early in the journey to self-management.

If an employee who is unable or unwilling to work within the team doesn’t leave of his own accord, then the manger needs to step in and deal with the situation from an HR perspective. (See Tale of a Too-Hands-Off Manager.)

Offering Feedback

Before team members can help someone off their team, they need  have the skills to  offer and receive peer-to-peer feedback and deal with behavior that disrupts work and relationships.

Many teams reach the point where they can handle a range of disagreements, missed expectations, and frictions. Fewer reach the point of helping someone leave–at least in a healthy and respectful way.  Mobbing, shunning, and piling-on don’t count for healthy or respectful.

When there’s a problem that’s getting in the way of the work and working relationships, and the team doesn’t have the skills to handle it, it’s time for management action.

Setting Direction within the Organization

Teams make commitments, but they don’t set product priorities in many companies, especially big ones. The vision and definition of the product comes from the customer or product owner (but, take a look at Know Thy Customer). As a team matures, team members may move towards partnership in co-creating the product.  This depends on trust and a collaborative relationship with the customer. This is a relationship that requires high domain knowledge, technical knowledge, and a high level of trust.

Remember, there are plenty of teams, especially in start-ups, where they DO set product direction and priorities.

Every Team is Different

The “right” level of self-management depends on the context. Consider how long the team will stay together. It takes time for a team to learn self-management skills. If the team will only be together for a few months–ask why the organization is creating churn–and realize that it probably doesn’t make sense to train team members to manage team membership or involve them in setting direction within the organization. On the other hand, if team members will have a long life together, it’s likely they’ll be adding team members, so teach them to participate in collaborative hiring.  Build towards partnership with the product owner group.

A Mile Too Far

It’s possible to push too much management work onto teams. I talked to a manager in an organization that had expended millions of dollars to train teams to self-organize and self-manage. The division then eliminated all but a few management positions.

But the division wasn’t seeing greater creativity and engagement, as it had hoped. Instead, highly trained technical people were leaving the organization in droves. Alarmed, the remaining managers started exit interviews. They learned that people quit to work for other companies that had traditional, manager-led teams. The people who left didn’t love being told what to do. They wanted to focus on the work they loved, not administration.

In the rush to embrace self-organizing and self-managing teams, top management had loaded too many management tasks onto the teams. Team members were spending less than 50 percent of their time on actual technical work.

(One does wonder if this company collected any data on results. But I don’t know that part of the story.)

A Clarification

The term “self-organizing team” is applied rather loosely in the agile community.  I sometimes use that short hand myself.  In systems terms, every group is self-organizing within their  boundaries and constraints.  So calling a team self-organizing is redundant and probably not technically correct.

What gets managers and teams cross-wise is confusing the term self-organizing team with self-managing or self-directed team.  All teams are self-organizing, but not all teams are self-managing. And not all self-managing teams are self-directed, or self-governed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This