How to manage self-managing teams?

The answer is quite simple: you don’t. Isn't that what self-managing teams are all about? Many organisations strive to increase the autonomy of teams and departments but fail to do so because of their urge to control them. So what is the key to success? And how did this question arise at all?

There are two important trends. The first trend is the growing number of requests from employees to become part of a self-managing team. Many workers are highly educated and have high job expectations. They are not satisfied with merely executing imposed tasks and assignments. They aspire to develop their skills and they want to grow as a person. They want to break free from rigid frameworks and seek freedom to organise and structure their work. This is challenging in terms of organisation but also creates potential. To put this in Steve Jobs words:

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do’.

The second trend is the rapidly evolving environment, the VUCA world (named after its Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity). Technological development is a main driver, as it it pushes the market and its players forward. Combined with extensive globalisation, it forces companies to improve their business models, their agility and their adaptability.

Self-managing teams

Self-managing teams seem to respond to both trends. If you give your employees enough flexibility they can respond to movements in the VUCA world in an agile way.

Mother Nature

Most organisations struggle to implement the concept of self-managing teams because they misinterpret self-managing by not managing at all, which can easily result in chaos due to a lack of direction and structure.

So the key question is: how can you maintain structure within self-managing teams? The answer can be found in nature. You can compare an organisation to the human body. The human body is a complex system of organs, muscles, the nervous system, the senses, the brain… The organs support the functioning of the human body as a whole, yet they work in a self-managed an autonomous way. In that sense you can compare organs to units within an organisation. In order for the organs to function properly, they need information and clear communication, which the central nervous system takes care of.

Without interference, the organs will attempt to function in an optimal way, that is: optimally for the organ, which is not necessarily optimal for the body as a whole. When confronted with danger, priorities shift: blood flow will be directed to the most vital parts and some organs will work at a slower pace. This is to protect the body as a whole. In an organisation, the management should also protect “the whole”. In some cases management should limit the autonomy of certain units in favour of the organisation.

The senses are closely connected to the outside world. Sight, hearing, touch, smell and feel respond to what’s happening in the world around. In an organisation you should keep track of trends and evolutions in order to react and anticipate to them.

Finally, we need the brain to maintain an overview. And the heart for passion, and the soul for identity - more as a metaphor than in a physical sense.

Viable Systems

‍In summary, we can say that a well-functioning organisation should provide the following five key elements:

  • Develop an identity and ambition, a soul and a strong culture for the entire organisation.
  • Steer policy in favour of the organisation. Limit the autonomy of the units when it benefits the organisation as a whole.
  • Give units as much autonomy as possible, within the framework of the organisation.
  • Install good information and communication channels.
  • Units and leadership should maintain contact with the outside world in order to adequately explore, anticipate, and respond.

These elements are the essence of the Viable Systems Model by Stafford Beer, a model that regards an organisation as a whole system that must be in balance with its environment and that can provide guidance for testing and adjusting your organisation.

It has become a powerful metaphor and a strong guideline to look at organisations and guide them in their future organisational design.

CTA newsletter

Share this article on

Read more