Self-Managing Teams: Thoughts And Learnings

Kai Platschke @ teamdecoder
11 min readOct 10, 2020

#newwork #holacracy #selfmanagament #teamwork #change

After helping companies for many years making their brands more human (> www.relevancemethodology.com), I felt more and more that big changes are waiting to be discovered at the inside of those companies.

A new thinking — in marketing or elsewhere — can only be established, when work changes, too. Old, fixed hierarchies and a grown, far too complex bureaucracy do not only prevent that people outside of the firm get an updated impression of it, but also prevent that people on the inside get more content with their workplace. But changing the workplace does not only serve their contentment, but moreover delivers better results, and that’s why you should do it, too.

For a few years now I have been researching and experimenting in the area of “new work”. I read all the obvious books, I virtually followed the Corporate Rebels on their journey ticking off all those amazing companies on their impressive bucket list, I took some Holacracy lessons (e.g. at Dwarfs&Giants in Vienna) — and all of this to finally arrive … where else … in reality. Through my work with self leading and self organizing teams I have learned a lot.

Here is my pretty non-impressive, because standard, and incomplete reading list on this topic:

In my career I was lucky to having been invited to work for companies which allowed me to make the first steps and experiments on this matter together with them. Most of the time the projects were not even called “new work” projects, but rather “marketing” or “change” — things you would usually do as a business consultant. And often I arrived at that point where it became obvious that changing the way HOW they worked would help solving the problem.

Without jumping too far ahead in this article: This is my first, and maybe the biggest learning: The HOW is as important as the WHAT, or said differently: Working ON the company is just as important as working IN it. Once you get this, you can set up a process that guides people through the changes and keeps the change-process itself alive.

Here in this article I will try to take you with me on the journey I made in my teamwork lablet me know, if you need more information or have any questions.

#1: Who Do We Actually Do “New Work” For?

I have seen quite a few change projects (isn’t every company always in the middle of one?) and always felt that “bottom-up” was the way to go, meaning: Even if the impulse to change came from the top management, it is crucial to define content, direction and process for the change first and foremost with the workforce. Only so you can be sure to have everyone on board and to actually change something that has the wished for impact. And I also always feel more confident with the “true picture” of a company that I see talking to the levels below the CEOs, instead of just hearing their sometimes twisted own reality, if you know what I mean ;)

But with “new work” — all this is different.

In my work teams get transferred more self-responsibility in order to spread it on more shoulders, in order to simplify processes and decrease the amount of bureaucracy, as well as to dismantle hierarchy walls between top and bottom — and when going for this approach I naively always thought I would do something great for the “bottom”, I honestly thought I’d help them a great deal in their “fight as davids versus the goliaths” in the hierarchy model. #LOL

But then: Hey, why weren’t they happy? Didn’t I just empower them? In the real work world it was mostly the “top” that could not wait to get rid of all their responsibilities and it was the “bottom” that wasn’t ready or even not willing to accept them.

That was when I understood that implementing new and better ways of working has nothing to do with the fight of top versus bottom or vice versa, but it is a steep learning curve that needs to be seen, understood and adapted to step by step by everyone in an organization, independant from the current hierarchy level.

#2: Starting Point: Circles

Inspired by Holacracy I use the element of a “circle” very often to practice new ways of working within small entities. They allow for continuous improvement and also for expansion into other areas of the company once the model works. By “circle” I mean small, easily manageable groups of 5–15 people who join the circle by their own free will because they are intrinsically attracted by the topic of the circle.

For a start those circles can take over general company topics like innovation, values, sustainability or compliance, but then also take over core tasks by building circles of specific skills or by projects or clients.

Every circle needs a purpose

Every circle will have a difficult phase or two in the beginning. In the midst of organizational chaos, that will most certainly occur, they will come back to questions like “Why are we doing all this?” or “Where do we want to go with this?”. As there is a big effort necessary to learn the new form of organization (= self management) it is important for every circle to have a strong and clear purpose from the very beginning.

  • so that everyone in the company knows what the circle’s job is and what to expect of them, and what not, and …
  • so that every circle member knows what they are getting themselves into

Examples:

  • The “circle for innovation” has the job to regularly supply company X with new and inspiring business ideas, kick of their development or develop them themselves
  • The “circle for values” develops a value system for company X, by defining values, implementing them and keeping them alive.

I recommend writing the purpose the very moment someone has the idea for a new circle. This might be the board of directors, HR or a group of employees that would like to form a new circle. Once the circle has been formed it is still important though, to give it the freedom to rewrite this purpose in a way they feel more comfortable with, of course without changing the overall objective.

#3: Governance — Not Grassroots Democracy

Such a new team or circle ideally consists of people that are very interested in its topic and can contribute value to it — independent from their current position in a department of a level in the hierarchy. This leads to very diverse groups of people that normally would not work or sit together — often they don’t even know each other (depending on the size of the company of course).

This is why a clear working system and a coach at their side will help them over the first few weeks and months to get and stay on track of learning this new way of working.

No bosses anymore?

When those new founded teams meet for the first time they often feel the need to make every discussion, every little step all together. They think: Now that we are without a boss, who would normally take all decisions, we should play a grassroots democracy, where we all have to agree before something happens. No one dares to move a bit without everyones’ agreement. This way discussions are endless, every detail becomes an issue and not much work gets done. It’s a classic trap.

Self-organization and self-management or self-leadership does not mean that there is no boss. It means quite the opposite: As all work and responsibility is divided by all team members, each and everyone has his or her own part to play. Within this part, this person is the boss. So at the end, not no one is the boss, but everyone is a boss.

It also means that everyone is responsible for his or her own contribution in order to influence the decisions the circle makes and in order to make the best out of their own job. In order to do so, one has to speak up. Who does not speak, does not participate. And what is not said, does not exist. Sounds like a brutal rule? Well, there is no change without everyones’ engagement.

Roles And Rules Documentation

Despite the risk of seeming quite too bureaucratic, I have to say that I am a big fan of governance documents. A governance document is a file, in which the team writes down everything they discuss around the way they want to work. So it contains all things HOW, and no things WHAT.

That includes:

  • organizational roles (e.g. meeting organizer, memo writer, recruiter, …)
  • job related roles (e.g. researcher, blogger, writer, designer, …)
  • domains and who owns them (e.g. website, software, coffee machine, …)
  • rules the team wants to follow (e.g. every opinion counts, we are all equal, we always listen to all proposals with an open mind, … and hopefully some more meaningful ones ;)
  • tensions (the word means problems and potentials, borrowed from Holacracy) that should be discussed and solved in a governance meeting

Some teams take this document and make it their “constitution” which everyone signs in an official act and that the team keeps on working on in regular meetings. Others just use an Excel file which they check first thing every time they have a status meeting. Whatever the form, a document like this must exist and constantly be worked on. This is governance, and it is just as important as the task at hand (e.g. innovation, values, …).

Companies that use a lot of circles could even use Glassfrog — the official Holacracy software.

#4: Advisory Process

Once responsibilities have been split within the team, there still will be decisions that one does not want to make alone or that one even should not make alone. Maybe because the decision has a big influence on someone else’s job or it is regarding someone else’s special field of knowledge. In such a case the so-called advisory process has proven to be very useful.

The person seeking a decision can still make this decision alone, but has to hear out all relevant colleagues and their opinions in advance.

The advisory process is also very useful within the governance process. When one team member would like to present a new rule or role, it is helpful when he or she has been talking to some colleagues in advance in order to know the chances, the proposal gets agreed on in the next meeting.

Objections

I love to work with the principle of objections in governance meetings. Proposals are accepted when no one has an objection. In doing so everyone at the table is equal, everyone has the same right to utter the same objection, and each objection prevents a decision. If the objection cannot be solved in the minute (e.g. by clarification or quickly altering the proposal) the proposer takes home the task to do so after the meeting with the person that brought up the objection. Both can re-present the proposal in the next governance meeting.

And no worries for the shy ones: Every accepted proposal, every rule and role, can be challenged in every governance meeting. But challenges should always come with a new proposal.

This way the document, that I love so much, is constantly in revision and improvement, and through it so is the daily work.

#5: Tool Heaven

A good digital team management tool and its utilisation is crucial for the success of a circle. Especially as working in the circle is not the only job for each circle member, it is important to stay in touch outside of the physical (if any) meetings. And even more than that: People should learn to really work on these platforms: To discuss, create todos and timings and to make decisions without meeting in real life not even once. Work.

My experience shows me that this is an unexpectedly difficult thing for most people. So sometimes a simple (still stupid, but mabye sometimes necessary) rule like “log onto the platform at least once a day” can help until one gets used to it. Or you might want to choose a project that will be 100% managed online — and team members must not talk and work outside the chosen platform, in order to see and learn how that works (btw: this platform could be something like Basecamp or Microsoft Teams or Trello or Freedcamp).

Getting used to this way of working will help those circles a great deal in their day-to-day.

#6: Coaching The Top

Regarding the “old” bosses: Good old “frame & trust” rule applies. By co-setting the purpose of the self-managing teams and laying down ground rules in the beginning, each circle has the frame within which it can move. The boss needs to trust now. Letting go is the adequate motto.

And dear bosses: Be assured, that the performance of these circles will most probably not be as great as you wished they were. Why? Because at first these circles have to learn HOW to work before actually DOING the work. The HOW is always underestimated.

Most companies will start with one or two circles and collect learnings. In this period and even for a while after this, circle members will still have a boss for their work outside the circle, in their “normal” job (in this phase, circles are still an experiment, and not yet the new normal). These bosses need to be made aware that their influence does not reach into the circle, but ends right before it, even if “their” employee is part of the circle.

If this boss person has some expertise that the circle might need, the circle can always invite her or him to share contents, ideas, comments, feedback, recommendations and opinions, but the circle will never be disciplinarily bound to them.

Let’s go one step further upstairs: The c-level management, the board of directors, or whatever they call themselves nowadays ;) Here are the people that had decided in the first place to hand over some responsibility, so here, too, one has to get acquainted with the role of a consultant, trainer or coach. The biggest fear here though, seems to be less the loss of the ability to make decisions, but rather not to be heard anymore and to see the company developing independently to oneself.

Here is good news: This will not be the case. People are allowed to stay in touch, have coffee together and to talk and share visions on all possible topics, even if some or most decisions of the day-to-day will be taken in circles. And then there is always the advisory process which I mentioned earlier.

Conclusion

Implementing self managing / self leading / self organizing teams is work for all levels. And it is a big change. A change that might not always be liked by all employees.

You have to free yourself from the idea of doing a favor to your employees by starting this process. You should make the decision because you realize that the old way of working does simply not work anymore and does not deliver the results and contentment anymore that you are looking for. If that is the case, you have to count on those people in your company who will grab the new possibilities and start using them right away. But you also have to be aware that there will be people that need more time, which you should give them. And there will be those who will not ever get used to this way of working and might even leave you. And maybe that is ok.

Once you kick this off you will soon see that more and more people get friendly with the system, start to enjoy and use the freedom it gives them, make their own decisions for the first time, make new connections. And then there is this positive energy and the fun that work can suddenly produce.

Then you know you’re on the right track :)

Thank you very much for reading. I am sure many of you have had different experiences and I would be happy to hear and learn from them. Or maybe you want to discuss how to test this approach in your company? Whatever the case, please just get in touch with me: kai@platschke.com / www.kaiplatschke.com

Titelfoto: Photo by Csaba Balazs on Unsplash

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Kai Platschke @ teamdecoder

Independent business consultant for brand strategy, sustainability and org design. Founder of www.teamdecoder.com