#12 Borrowing from Self-Management

There has been much hype around systems like Holacracy, and while we might not want to move fully into self-management, there are plenty of aspects we can incorporate into how we lead our teams. 

When I first started this podcast I wanted to cover some of the new trends, the new thinking around management and leadership in organisations, but to be honest there are so many basic, general, evergreen concepts in management, that I didn’t really look at much of the contemporary thinking in organisational design.

In season one, I did cover concepts that have relatively recently made it into the organisational leadership space, like psychological safety or leading remote teams, but they’ve all still been within the confines of traditional management thinking. So in this episode, i’d like to talk about a slightly different way of viewing organisational structure, and then see what we can incorporate into our leadership practice, regardless of what kind of organisation we are.

I’m talking about self-managed organisations, those organisations that have flattened the hierarchies and removed not just the title of management, but abandoned the role all together. Regardless of whether we can ever see our organisation going that way, it’s worth having a look at self-management, why it’s being introduced in some places, in what ways employees can benefit from it and why organisations seem more open to the idea than some decades ago.

So in this episode, I want to talk a little bit about those aspects of self management, with some reference to holacracy which is a specific way of distributing responsibility throughout the organisation and then we can see how managers in more traditional organisations can adopt the essence of these systems, in order to have more adaptable teams.

I’ve been mainly inspired for this episode by an article in the Harvard Business Review, Beyond the Holacracy Hype. If you want to find out more about that specific way of self-managing, I recommend you read the article, after listening to this podcast of course.

Or you can even read the book with the same title as the methodology, or you can check out the Holacracy website.

I’m not going to go into any detail of how that specific time of self-management, or indeed any other works, because I think then we’ll get into the detail of the new structures rather than their essence and their reason for being. The only thing I do want to say about Holacracy and most ways of self managing in an organisation is that they are supported by very solid technology.

The Role of Technology

This is one of the reasons why now is the time when more organisation are exploring this kind of structure. Technology can make information available to everyone, it’s allowing everyone to be more transparent about what they are doing, it allows people to talk to others in the organisation, regardless of whether they are in the same department or not, even in the same physical location. Technology can even be used to track the work, record what decisions are being made and who is making them, and so you can see how some of the responsibilities of the traditional manager can actually be taken over by the software.

As always, context is really important, so even though the concept of self-management, and especially self-organisation is nothing new, technology makes it easier for us to imagine how we can introduce it and how we can scale it.

We can also see how technology has enabled self-organisation in global society, where social media has allowed people with very few resources to self organise around movements,at a national and global scale, something that would have been very difficult just 50 years ago.

So I suppose this is my first take away from how these organisations are being run: how technology and the way which we use it really influences how we work with each other, and even how we view hierarchy in our team or organisation.

Status is no longer given to the person who has the most information, because information can now be widespread. And in fact, I can see how the person in the team who decides to keep information for themselves can be regarded with suspicion. Traditionally a manager had the status to access certain information and the status to keep that information to themselves, as to distribute it all or make it available to all was logistically difficult. Nowadays, managers need to have very good reasons for doing not sharing information – as do all employees, by the way.

Technology also enables us to share our progress with others, in a way that feels like we are reporting our progress to the team, not just to the manager – the best example of this are purely virtual organisations, which have systems to visualise very quickly the progress of tasks and projects. This allows people to offer to help and take over tasks, without them having to be co-ordinated by the manager – people can also more easily reach out to team members when they need help or information, whereas in more traditional, techless set ups, the first point of call would have probably been the manager.

So technology, that’s one aspect we can be thinking about, how can we best use technology so that team members have all the information they need to get on with their work, including knowing how others are doing?

(And by the way, this use of technology is not just for remote teams, but those who are in the office, fully or partially too, it’s about thinking how technology can help with all our teamwork.)

Choosing the Work

One of the other aspects worth noting about holacracy is that it gives people the freedom to choose what they work on. While this might not always be possible in a company that does not have the software to support this or where there are reasons why people cannot choose their work (when you need specific technical skills for example) , it is worth bearing in mind that we tend to overlook the fact that people are happier with the work they do if they can choose something that suits their interests, or their talents. Simply knowing that they have been able to choose what they work on can give them a sense of autonomy, that fuels their inner motivation.

Even when the spec of what our team can work is narrow, it’s always worth looking for ways of giving people the choice to decide what they work on, or how they work on it.

Now, this freedom is supported in Holacracy with a system that holds people accountable to continuously adding value to the organisation. This is a system that doesn’t rely on one manager holding team members accountable, but it is a system, supported by technology, where accountability is spread throughout the organisation. People are accountable to each other.

This is definitely something that would be worth moving on to any kind of organisational space. Accountability shouldn’t only be to our bosses, it should be to our team members, or colleagues, and other people whose work we impact in the organisation. But the only way of this accountability to be shared is by having regular communication and a lot of transparency-  for example, as I mentioned earlier, through the use of technology.

Some managers may not be ready for this, but also, those in a non managerial support role may not be used to it either. It’s much more comfortable to know that your manager is holding your colleagues to account, rather than feel like the responsibility is also yours. I’m sure you’ve heard of stories where a team member went to complain to a manager about somebody else’s behaviour, rather than trying to tackle the situation themselves. Or times when a manager had offered to have a “quiet word” with someone, rather than encourage the team to deal with unacceptable behaviour from a team member. Shared accountability always seems like an attractive proposition, but it can be uncomfortable to execute.

One final thought about systems like Holacracy or moving to flatter structures is that the transition takes time, it can be painful, and like with any change, there will be a loss of productivity. (That is why I am dedicating an episode to those aspects that I think can be easily transferred to the ordinary workplace, rather than advocating for this new way of organisational to be introduced in every single organisation. It’s a huge change and there have to be many good reasons to put it in place.)

The Elephant in the Room

So, before I continue extracting those aspects of self-management that are worth integrating into our teams mode of operation, I’d like to address the small elephant in the room.

If we move towards a more self organised approach, what role does the manager then have? If we are not allocating tasks, or delegating, deciding how people should be doing the work, solving their problems and holding people to account, what is our role as manager?

My first thought is that probably all the above will still apply at some point, especially if we’ve been operating in a hierarchical culture for a while. But in any case, I would argue that there is still room for someone, for example the manager, to advocate and design ways for the team to continue learning, to learn from mistakes, to seek out opportunities to do things differently that are going to improve our work. To make sure we don’t become insular, that we keep an eye out so that we remain adaptable.

And of course, part of making sure that we meet our goals is also making sure that there is still feedback throughout the team, even throughout the organization, that people are talking to each other about how their work impact each other’s, that we have time to reflect on what we’re doing well, what we’re doing not that well, what we should be doing more often, and what we should be doing less of. Helping people develop at work could also be a manager’s responsibility.

Even when we start to adopt a more shared role towards responsibility and accountability, it might still be part of a manager’s role to point out when there are general, team issues that are affecting the work. Or to flag a general drop in the quality of the work.

Far from being the police person , you might be the one that is responsible for the overview of the team, while individual members are more focused on their own individual tasks and projects. It will really depend on the make-up of your team and the nature of your work. In a self organised system, the manager becomes more of a facilitator, or a coordinator.

Your role could become that of an ecosystem creator and maintainer, asking questions like  how can I support you, rather than telling you what you need to do and expecting you to follow my instructions.

A manager’s responsibility might also be to role model, because while we still have some of that hierarchy in place, the person with most authority will be most likely to influence other people’s behaviours. In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be the case, but I’ve seen way too many examples to think that this is going to change anytime soon. So our responsibility becomes to role model behaviours that are conducive to good communication, respect of each other’s work, acknowledging that no one is perfect, owning up to mistakes early enough so that something can be done about them.

Finally our role might become more of an advocate for our team, the person who tries to get more resources, the person who champions the team’s work, who makes the almost invisible results, very visible in the company.

As you can see all these roles are probably much more difficult to fulfill than the classic I designed the work, I design how task for carried out, I decide who does everything on a project and then I just make sure you do everything as I laid it out for you. Becoming more of a facilitator role model model and champion is much harder.

What Can We Integrate into Our Way of Working?

So, how about now, we look at the ways in which employees seem to benefit from self-management systems. For example, in the earlier article on Holacracy I mentioned, one employee said is makes the most of his Talents. There is no reason why this can’t be the case to some extent in any kind of organisation.
In order to do this, team members need to have a holistic view of what the team is doing, and what the aims and goals are so that , to an extent, there is some choice in the work they do, and that they can design how best to carry it out in a way that suits their strengths.

A couple of other aspects that we can borrow from self-management:

1) Members have shared accountability for the work

Well, you can do this through meetings, or through making your work visible, like I discussed earlier. But what we definitely will need is license to hold each other accountable, even, if we’re not used to it, just an agreement that we will hold each other accountable. And to make this easier, you could set up some kind of process through we can share the progress of our work and our results.

2) Authority over how goals are met

There are many ways in which people can be involved in how the work is carried out: review processes periodically, encourage people to point out when something is not working, when they think it could work better.

You can also make room to set up small experiments so that you can try something out before you decide that “that will never work here” or because “we’ve tried it before”.

3) Discretion over resource use

Instead of immediately making decisions over resource allocation, have conversations, you might be missing information that helps you make more relevant decisions to what your team needs. And if certain resources are going to be used by a small number of people in your team, is there a way that they can decide how they’re going to use them, or even that they know how to negotiate for more resources if they need them?

4) Ownership of information and knowledge related to the work

There is no excuse now not to have as much information as possible about our work and to share knowledge between us. You can have online systems that anyone in the team can access and add to. Having information that helps us do our work increases the sense of competence, which is one of the elements that increases intrinsic motivation, pretty much like a sense of autonomy does.

5) Use more judgement and discretion.
It seems to me like in a self-managed system, you need more trust by default. Instead of having many rules that must be followed because at some point someone made a mistake, and instead of making sure that person didn’t make a mistake, we set a rule to avoid others from behaving in a similar way ,we start from a position of trust. We trust that if people have the information they need, they will make sensible decisions – they might not always be the best decisions, we all make mistakes, but they will make a decision in the best of interest of the team and the organisation.

Starting from this point allows people to feel like they can use their judgement and discretion to make decisions, without always having to check in with management or needing approval from three or four people higher up in the organisation. What do you think?

What would need to be in place for this to be the case in your company or organisation?

I’m going to leave you with this huge, open question – I wish I had some answers for you, but your own propensity to trust, your history, company history and the nature of your work will all have an effect on how you can answer this and other high-level questions. By the way, there is a whole episode on Trust in this podcast, episode 6, so if you want some thoughts on that, do check it out.

Recommended Reading, Listening and Watching

Maverick by Ricardo Semler

You can also listen to the ten episode podcast LeadWise.

Or watch his TedTalk How to Run a Company with No Rules: https://www.ted.com/talks/ricardo_semler_how_to_run_a_company_with_almost_no_rules

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