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Self-organization starts at the top

August 7, 2020

Self-organizing and self-managing teams are terms that get thrown around without a true understanding of the impact a leader has on the success (or failure) of these team models. The ideas are often pushed down to teams under the misconception that team members are responsible for transforming themselves to embody the values of self-organization.  In reality, leaders are instrumental to the organizational change necessary for new team models to emerge.

Self-organization as a spectrum

Think of self-organization as a spectrum, dependent upon the level of authority and capabilities leadership encourages through the re-imagining of their organizational culture. This spectrum is illustrated in Richard Hackman’s Authority Model.  He explores the relationship between team authority, oversight of work and the factors necessary for teams (and organizations) to move along the spectrum.

Manager-led teams

A manager-led team is a team that works on the activities, tasks and projects assigned to them. Progress and completion of the work is monitored by a functional manager or a project manager. Team members will form and disband as allocated or directed. This category represents a traditional (waterfall) approach to projects. As a worker, I do what I’m told.

Self-managing teams

A self-managing team is one that chooses or assigns work to themselves, makes it visible and monitors the completion of that work.  Team members pull work into their queue - functional managers or project managers do not need to assign the work. The team decides, amongst themselves, who will work on the high priority backlog items or requests, how they will work together to complete the work and what’s required to get the work shippable. This category represents a typical agile or Scrum team with a focus on continuous improvement. As a worker, I choose what I work on.

Self-designing teams

A self-designing team is a team that forms around the work itself.  Team members come together to solve a problem, realize an opportunity, or work on a new project identified by the organization.  They choose to work together – forming and reforming and managing the work through to completion.  Managers do not need to assign nor allocate team members to the work. This category is where high-performing agile teams thrive.  High-performing sports teams or surgical teams. As a worker, I choose who I work with.

Self-governing teams

A self-governing team is a team that identifies ideas, problems or opportunities to work on and then forms around that work.  The team determines what needs to be done, how to achieve the necessary outcomes and everyone else gets out of their way.  As teams meet their commitments and outcomes, they are given even more latitude.  At this level of self-organization, teams may disband and reform depending on the challenges surrounding them, without the direction or input of their leadership.  As a worker, I choose what job needs doing and who I work with to get the job done.

A leader’s role is to create the appropriate conditions for teams and the organization to grow beyond current capabilities and to structure progress along the self-organizing spectrum.  

Self-organizing leadership teams

We tend to assume executives are further to the right on Hackman’s authority matrix; more autonomous and results-oriented than even self-governing teams.  In our experience, director teams and management teams are no different than any other team.  Assess management teams along the same spectrum and you will likely find similar behaviour that you see within delivery teams. Some management teams are manager-led, some are self-managing, rarely you might find self-designing or even self-governing management teams. Think about your organization and how decisions get made and work gets done.

Transparency of decisions

How do decisions get made within your organizations?  Decisions tend to get made where information meets authority. To make decisions, teams need both information around a particular decision and the authority to make it. How does this translate in your organization? Is there an executive meeting to review project status, budgets or roadmaps a few times a month with several pre-meetings amongst the teams and management before finally meeting with the executives or a Steering Committee – once the message has been polished to be just right?  Reflect on the culture or structure within the organization that drives this type of behaviour. Is there a way to get the information deeper into your organization, enabling teams to make the decisions without requiring input at every level?  

Getting work done

The level of oversight speaks to the trust within an organization. If we assign tasks and monitor the work constantly it suggests that if we didn’t monitor nothing would get done. If we have transparency into what is being worked on, we have at least some trust that the right thing is being worked on. The corollary to tracking work is rewarding work; who or what gets recognized. Take a look at who and how team members (and leaders) are recognized and rewarded.  Does it align with Manager-led teams?  What would you need to change to reward teams further to self-managing or self-designing?  

Ultimately, how teams operate is situational. Hackman’s Authority Matrix provides a way of describing different team cultures, and which level of self-organization is needed depends on the situation. However, in a complex, unpredictable environment, teams that can respond quickly to the challenges before them (that is, that are further to the right in the Authority Matrix) out-perform more hierarchically-managed teams.

Get started

(1) Understand context – decide where you want to be on the spectrum, including the level of change you’re willing to bear.

(2) Provide clear and compelling direction (the outcome, not the solution) and ask teams what they need to be successful. Then action that success criteria.

(3) Decide what you’re willing to commit to as an executive and leader and be honest about it – to yourself and the teams.

Interested in becoming a catalyst for positive change in your organization?