The Power of Self Managed Teams
My mother often tells me a story from my youth. When I was a couple years old, in kindergarten, I had to close my jacket. Somehow I figured that someone else could do that for me, so I asked a small girl to close my zip. And she did, with my mum watching the scene. I’ve repeated that quite often with my little sister. My mum always tells me ‘you are good at delegating’. Now I’ve got three kids myself. One of them, 10 years old and I can see the same power of delegation in him. He sits at the far end of our table and very kindly asks his brother, who’s sitting about 2 meters closer to the kitchen ‘can you please get me some water’. Smart, isn’t it?
To grow a business, there’s no way around delegation. If you hold all responsibility in your own hands, you can’t scale anything. I personally have a ‘desire to delegate’. I prefer to focus on the few things I’m strong at and enjoy. Everything else can be done by someone else who’s stronger and more motivated to do it than me. One of my all-time favorite books is ‘the one minute manager‘.
Ken Blanchard categorizes leadership into 4:
The leader provides specific direction and closely monitors task accomplishment. Involves clearly telling people what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and then closely monitoring their performance.
The leader continues to direct and closely monitor accomplishments, but also explains decisions, solicits suggestions, and supports progress.
The leader facilitates and supports people’s efforts toward task accomplishment and shares responsibility for decision-making with them. Involves listening to people, providing support and encouragement for their efforts, and then facilitating their involvement in problem-solving and decision-making.
The leader turns over responsibility for decision-making and problem-solving to people.
The logic in these 4 categories is that it starts with the leader. ‘the leader turns over responsibility’, ‘the leader facilitates’.
When I started my first company, Bridge Global, I had to do everything. When you’re an entrepreneur and you try to get a company off the ground, especially if you bootstrap, you need to do everything. You’re the product guy, sales guy, financial guy, HR guy, etc. Throughout the 10 years, I led the company, I used my ‘desire to delegate’ continuously. In the early stages, this backfired several times. But over time, it worked and all the operational work is done by other people. Now I can build something new, while the great people I have in the company, manage the company. 100% delegation.
Today, when I look back at the way I built Bridge, I recognize the traditional paradigm I was in. Even though I always tried to create a ‘flat structure’ with little hierarchy, over the years, hierarchy came in nevertheless. I also always felt like ‘the boss’, it was my company and I made the final decisions. As Frederik Laloux describes in ‘reinventing organizations‘, I built a company in the orange paradigm:
Bridge is a great company and I am still happily engaged with it. In my desire to delegate I’m always looking for new ways to organize. After reading Laloux’ book, my eyes opened to the possibilities of the Teal paradigm. Last week, I read this article about designing a self managed organization. Although I believe Laloux described that an organization needs a leader, the author makes an important point that the design for a teal organization needs to come from someone. And in most cases that will be the leader (or in a startup maybe the founders). Let me explain how this plays out for me.
In Ekipa, we adopted the principles set out by Laloux. A few months back, I wrote (actually I copy-pasted a lot from Laloux page here) ‘Ekipa Reinvented’. I had to start this as a leader and then I asked my team to reflect on it. Some things we adjusted, most are still as described initially. A few of the key things that define our team:
People are systematically considered to be good (reliable, self-motivated, trustworthy, intelligent). Until we are proven wrong, trusting co-workers is our default means of engagement.
This is the basis for having a self managed team. Whenever someone joins, we just assume this and each person is 100% accountable for his roles. There is no leader who assumes that he needs to control the person and check for outcomes. We hold ourselves accountable.
Information and decision making
- All business information is open to all.
- Every one of us is able to handle difficult and sensitive news.
- We believe in the power of collective intelligence. Nobody is as smart as everybody. Therefore all decisions will be made with the “advice process“.
This means, I as the founder am not the exclusive owner of information and decisions. Everyone can see all the numbers and we explain the numbers to the team (not everyone is used to reading financial information). Decisions can be made by the team member who thinks we need to make a decision. In this, we’re assuming that nobody will buy a car without asking some colleagues for advice. Other than that, we can all make all decisions on our own. If you believe you need a new laptop, then so it is. If you believe you should invest in a trip to another country to attend a training, then we’ll assume you’re making the right decision.
All power is with the team. There is no formal hierarchy, we abandon the traditional system. There are no bosses to turn to. Teams decide what they focus on, how they achieve outcomes and how they solve problems.
Roles are fluid. We have no job descriptions. Every co-worker is free to create, modify or remove roles. If you think something adds value to your team’s purpose, you own it and move it forward. Once a week, we organize an overall team retrospective. During this event, the teams discuss the current roles and propose additions, improvements, modifications.
Initially, we did make some role descriptions in the team. We also scheduled a monthly ‘roles meeting’ (a concept I read about in holacracy, the governance meeting). But after 2 such meetings, we found it useless. During the week, people create tasks in Trello. Some are assigned to oneself or a team member, some are left unassigned. During the week, people take those tasks and work on them. Or we have a quick discussion about them to decide who best fits the task. With that, roles become ‘fluid’, people just take things and do what is needed. So we decided we don’t need any roles descriptions nor specific meetings.
Without going through the whole document, the key point is that for me as a founder, the system is liberating. I do not feel the need to manage people or hold people accountable (which I did feel in my orange company!). The system is also liberating for the other team members. People can rely on their own power. They can do the things they believe they’re best at and like to do.
Since we introduced this, I see a surge in responsibility. Team members take more initiative, experiment with things and I get WAY less questions. We align on a daily basis and keep communication open at all times through messengers. It makes me feel FREE. While I cannot speak for my coworkers, I get the impression they feel free too.
One thought that sometimes occurs to me is ‘am I getting the maximum output from my team members’. And I continually remind myself ‘I don’t care’. The only thing I care about is that we like working together, serve customers well, are profitable, that we’re building a solid business. I don’t believe in the old paradigm of maximum productivity, maximum efficiency. I don’t know how it works for you, but for me, I’ve got weeks I am super productive. Other weeks I don’t produce much. And I have peace with that. It’s more important to lead a good life to me.
So we need a leader or founder to initiate a system like this. And sure, there are moments when I need to take certain decisions as owner that according to ‘self-managed teal rules’ would need to be taken by the team. But that’s ok. In the end, the important thing is that we create rules of engagement that fit the organization we try to grow. I don’t want to be a CEO or the leader everyone turns to. I want to create a company that people are happy to work in. If people are happy, they’ll serve the customer well and that leads to satisfaction for everyone.
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