A self-managed team is a concept that has its roots in the manufacturing industry in the 1960s.  However, over the last 60 years or so it has evolved into a popular model replicated across many other sector groups.

In particular, the last 10 years have borne witness to its rise. Over the last decade, it has risen to represent the working models of many household-name businesses, and those on the Fortune 1000.

This post looks at how a self-managed team can be defined. It invesigates the benefits of using this structure, and how you may implement one in your team or department.

What are self-managed teams?

Self-managed teams are a management technique where a group of employees is brought together and given responsibility and accountability over most – or all – of the aspects of producing a product or service.

Self-managed teams are different from typical project teams. They are entirely self-organised and semi–autonomous. There is no typical hierarchy. Instead, management responsibilities are rotated among the team members under the pre-defined guidelines for collaboration.

In the self-managed team model, the group works collaboratively toward a common goal defined by external stakeholders.

Additionally, there is a collective responsibility to self-organise, assign tasks and solve problems.  As a unit, the team decides on the project plan and coordinates the daily activity with shared management responsibility.

The full ownership and responsibility to drive the project forward stay with the team. The lack of a typical hierarchy means that the focus remains entirely on the outcome of the project, not who is in charge and getting the credit for the work.   The even playing field ensures that everyone is given an equal opportunity to shine taking the lead on tasks that are in line with their expertise.

The benefits of self-managed teams.

Many organisations discover that self-managed teams bring with them a host of benefits.

These include.

Increased Productivity.

Full ownership of their role as an equal part of the team encourages an increased level of commitment to the task and a drive to engage with their work.  As a result, employees work more productively individually and so collectively are also more productive as a group.

Enhanced Innovation.

The fact that teams are given the freedom to problem solve and manage tasks leads to greater innovation and creativity. They are empowered to find their own path to the desired outcome.

Reduces pressure on managers.

In traditional team structures, the burden of managing projects, organising teams, and completing admin falls to middle and senior management.  These smaller tasks distract the management tier from making “big picture” decisions. Removing these burdens allow managers to do more impactful work.

Creates a motivated workforce.

Self-directed teams are highly motivated, engaged, and committed to achieving their desired outcome.  As the results are entirely their own, the team is 100% focused on offering maximum effort for key projects.

Better able to respond to complexity.

As self-managed teams make collective decisions and are ‘all in’ on the project, they have a much stronger ability to respond to complex problems.

Lower overhead costs.

Self-managed teams are cost-efficient. All technical and management tasks are centralised so there is no need to apply expensive management resources to every project. These teams can complete all the tasks themselves.

Reduced red tape.

A traditional team structure often includes red tape and time-consuming, organisational admin processes that need to be considered by each member of the team, such as getting an assignment “signed off”, given the green light or approved by external departments.  The lack of these means that self-managed teams can be more agile in how they work and can adapt quicker to new problems or opportunities.

Examples of self-managed teams.

Self-managed teams are a feature of some of the largest organisations in tech. Google, Spotify, Facebook and GitHub all benefit from self-managed teams.

Not all self-managed teams are the same. The shape and form of your team will be dependent upon the nature of your company and the requirements of your project.

Fully autonomous self-managed teams.

  • These teams complete ongoing work, with no top-down management or supervision at all on an indefinite basis.
  • The team is made up of cross-trained workers who have a variety of technical and management skills related to their project goals.
  • They must take full responsibility over their success and outcomes.
  • They must have a strong commitment to the company and align with all its goals.

Limited Supervision teams.

  • These teams have a floating manager, who will be called upon to make decisions where there is no clear best way. They offer guidance and motivational leadership when required.
  • Team members handle most of the decisions related to day-to-day working, but if a call needs to be made, the floating manager gets the casting vote.

Problem-solving or temporary teams

  • These teams are formed on a temporary basis to tackle specific problems or to complete projects.
  • They have very tightly defined objectives and outcomes with the added pressure of narrow deadlines.
  • These are high pressured situations with a very exact description of what success looks like.

These are not prescriptive categories. It is likely that many self-managed teams will feature elements of each.

four young male and female professionals look at a computer screen

Implementing self-managed teams.

Like what you’ve read?

These are some ideas about how you can begin to implement self-managed teams in your organisation or department.

Create a definition.

As the leader of the business or department, you need to decide what structure would work best for you. You may like to use the categories above to plan which features of each you would wish to see. However you envision it, you must create a clear mandate of the teams you want to see to ensure that you and the team know what is required.

Determine if your employees are ready to self-manage.

Features to look for:

  • Driven and motivated
  • Trusting and trustable
  • Confident decision makers
  • Strong communicators
  • Independent learners
  • Result led
  • Have ownership over outcomes – good and bad
  • Individuals that display these qualities are excellent candidates for self-managed teams.

Gauge an interest.

Once you have evaluated your team and identified your potential self-managed team, approach them and present the idea. Listen to their feedback and assess if this is something they would be interested in. If you have enough interest, then you can move on to form and deploy the group.

Communicate goals.

Before the team is formed, leadership and the employees themselves need to know why you have decided to move in this direction.

The things you should communicate are:

  • Why you have chosen this direction
  • What the expectations will be
  • Why you are going in this direction
  • How it will benefit the company
  • What it may mean for individual workers, teams, and departments.

Provide clear direction.

You must make sure that everyone has a clear understanding of what the desired outcome for the project is, and how these fit into the wider organisational goals.

You must present the desired outcome and the impact you want it to achieve.

You need to set boundaries to the project to keep the team on track and help them to create best practice principles for task management and communication.

Establish a decision-making process.

Starting a self-managed team from scratch needs a bedding-in process. You should hold a pre-start meeting outlining each team member’s strengths, and why they have been chosen. In other words, what they are bringing to the team.

As a group, you will need to determine how decisions will be made, and how conflicts or stalemate situations should be addressed.

This is not about designating leadership, but there will be a requirement to set out frameworks and templates of working that can be used when required.

Allocate resources.

The final step is to provide a budget and the resources the team will need to meet their goal. You may like to allocate a lumpsum budget for the year or quarter and let them determine how they need to allocate the resources.

Giving such financial freedom may be daunting, but by giving the team the autonomy over their own budget you are likely to find that they will be efficient and resourceful with how they spend it, only using what it needs.

The benefits of using self-managed teams are clear if they are set up to succeed. They require planning, forethought and need to be made up of the right people. Not everyone has the attributes to succeed in a self-managed team.

It is important to note that if this is a new prospect for an organisation then the process is bound to be iterative. It is likely to go through a few, and possibly, many different forms before you get it right. Open lines of communication and an agile philosophy will pave the way for success as you refine the process and the structure of yourself managed team.

About the author: I work hard to find the best opportunities for my candidates and the best talent for my clients. My honest and pragmatic approach helps me to build lasting relationships and deliver real value.  I have extensive experience helping organisations overcome their critical challenges in the digital environment, and have worked with everything from start-ups to major global brands.

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