An honest story about self-managing teams and organizations

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Mark Vletter
7 June 2023 Clock 8 min

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At Voys, there’s no manager to be found. And it has been this way since the beginning in 2006. Nowadays we work with 150 colleagues in 4 countries. In this story I’ll share the lessons I learned while scaling up a self-managing organization: the good, the bad and the ugly.

Why we started as a self-managing organization

When I founded Voys, my vision was to create an organization where everyone experienced the same freedom in their work as I did as a founder, fostering a culture of collaboration and equality. As our team grew from 15 to over 150 members, we faced the challenge of preserving this culture while scaling our organization. We embarked on a journey of self-management and learned invaluable lessons along the way. This is the honest account of the good, the bad, and the ugly of self-managing organizations, and how these insights can be applied to your own business.

Four key ingredients for successful self-managing teams

There are four key ingredients to making self-managing a success.

  1. Leadership must be committed to the self-management concept.
  2. You have to trust in your team: their expertise and judgment, their capacity to learn from inevitable mistakes, their good intentions, and the fact that they will ask for help when needed. This trust is given by default, not earned;
  3. Transparency fosters trust, and being open and transparent is an active responsibility for all members.
  4. Clarity is crucial. You have to create clarity whenever possible. On vision, strategy, accountabilities, expectations … everything.

Navigating common mistakes and pitfalls in self-management

There are two significant mistakes that often occur in the transition to self-management.

The first one is former managers who cease leading. In self-managed teams, managers must transition from managing people to guiding the team in managing the work collaboratively. Leadership skills and experience are essential for enabling team members to assume responsibility for their tasks.

For example, when Voys transitioned to self-managing teams, each team had a designated role responsible for developing a strategy. However, we failed to provide tools or time for strategy creation. Recognizing this, we implemented a standard process with a fixed rhythm, which allowed teams to allocate time and establish a strategy effectively.

The second common pitfall occurs when leadership lacks faith in the success of self-management. I have encountered numerous managers who claim, “my teams won’t be able to self-manage.” This mindset is a significant red flag. In reality, the manager’s skepticism often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, in 90% of cases, the root cause is not the team’s capabilities but the manager’s own reluctance to embrace self-management.

Essential skills for thriving in a self-managing organization

In self-managing organizations, individuals need to develop three crucial skills for success.

The first skill is embracing change by adopting a “yes, and” attitude by default. This is not about consensus but about consent. Consensus and Consent are two distinct decision-making approaches.

Consensus aims to achieve a decision that every group member actively supports and agrees upon. Consent focuses on reaching a decision that everyone can accept or agree to without any significant objections, even if it is not their preferred choice. In essence, consent emphasizes the absence of strong objections, while consensus seeks complete agreement and support from all participants.

The second skill involves taking ownership and understanding that each individual is the organization. This concept means owning one’s work and its responsibilities, working together as adults, and embracing the freedom that comes with self-management.

The third skill is learning to let go. In a self-managing organization, individuals must be comfortable relinquishing control over certain aspects that will impact their work, trusting their colleagues to hold those responsibilities. Letting go is vital for fostering collaboration and empowering team members to contribute their unique strengths and perspectives.

These skills empower team members to thrive in a self-managing environment, contributing to the organization’s overall growth and success. Trust and transparency are the facilitators, allowing team members to gain insight into each other’s work and thinking.

The challenges of self-managing organizations

Now mind you, there are downsides to self-management that you will need to mitigate. These are the four big challenges.

1. Absence of people management

A switch to self-management also means people management is good, and you lose something because of it. Because a good manager nurtures personal and team growth, which may be lost in self-managed teams. To compensate for this, you have to encourage a culture of feedback and self-development. This means that supporting each other’s development becomes a default for everybody. If you want to learn more about a culture of feedback, Netflix is a great source of inspiration. At Netflix, giving feedback is the default for everybody in the organization from the moment you start working there.

We are still working on making feedback part of our daily behavior. It is good to know that feedback benefits every org, but it’s easier in a self-managing organization. This is mainly because giving feedback to a boss is way more difficult for people, than giving feedback to peers. Removing bosses – or making anyone a boss of their work- makes feedback easier.

2. Increased risk of mistakes

When you try many new things, you are bound to make more mistakes. In self-managing teams, this means the whole organization makes more mistakes. You have to be ok with this and bring a “how can I help” attitude, to bring out the best in people in fixing mistakes and learning from them.

3. Decision-making

Team members are often required to make significant decisions. Initially, individuals may struggle to navigate this process, fearing the potential consequences of their choices. However, learning to do this successfully is vital for self-managing teams. Trusting each other means respecting the expertise, intentions, and judgment of colleagues, believing that they will learn from mistakes and seek help when needed. What really helps at this stage is realizing that you can come back on most decisions that you make and steer in different directions based on the experiments you run. Learning more about decision-making frameworks can help team members be more confident.

4. More time spent on communication

In a self-managing organization, effective communication becomes even more critical as decisions are no longer made solely by a management team. Instead, everyone involved and impacted must be well-informed and/or aligned. Striking a balance between providing clear, concise communication and not overwhelming team members with excessive information is hard. This may involve utilizing a combination of written documentation, videos, and project and process updates to gain more clarity on the thinking in, and evolution of the decision-making processes.

But if you invest more time in communication and ensure that everyone is on the same page, self-managing teams can achieve better focus and clarity, enabling them to move at a rapid pace.

The rewards of self-management

Despite these challenges, I’ve seen some significant benefits to being a self-managing organization.

  1. Equality and Freedom: This one is hard to explain, but working as equals is simply more enjoyable and feels more natural.
  2. Trust and Engagement: Trusting and being trusted feel way better and foster passion and dedication to the work we do.
  3. Accountability and Drive: Team members take ownership and excel in their roles, maximizing the potential of the people we work with.
  4. Focus and Speed: Clear communication and alignment enable rapid progress.
  5. Adaptability and Autonomy: Team members can make decisions and change direction as needed.
  6. Reduced Politics and Faster Learning: The absence of hierarchical structures leads to a more agile organization.

Overall there is more love for the work and the people you do it with and for. It’s the “felt” experience that I feel is the biggest benefit for the people working in a self-managing organization. This also maximizes human potential, which benefits the organization.

From an organizational perspective, learning faster might be the biggest benefit. The world and life are fast changing, and adapting to changes benefits both the people working in the org and the organization as a whole.

What can you learn

I understand that you might be wondering whether self-management could work for your organization, given the unique factors like size, type of work, or the people you work with. You might even question if you have the right people or worry about the challenges of transitioning.

And I’ll be honest, making the transition will be hard, but this won’t be because people cannot work together as adults. Your colleagues have faced significant life decisions, such as purchasing a home or raising children, without formal education in these areas. Yet, they have studied and gained years of experience in their professional roles, showcasing their ability to navigate challenges and adapt to new situations.

The key to unlocking the potential of self-management lies in trusting the people you work with, fostering an open and transparent culture, and ensuring clarity in roles and responsibilities. Any organization can embrace these principles. In doing so, you’ll be taking significant steps towards building a healthier, more effective, and ultimately, more successful organization.

Yes, that journey will be challenging, but the rewards of empowering your team members and fostering a collaborative environment are well worth the effort if you want to work together as equals.

More about how to build a self-managing organization

Do you want to learn more about how to build a self-managing organization? Sign up for my newsletter. We have written the handbook for companies who want to dive into this and will offer each chapter to you for free.

Here are some of the reviews for the book:

  • “This is the most complete resource I’ve read on self-management”
  • “Calling this ‘The handbook for working together as equals is no understatement’”
  • “This book is in the top 3 of most important books on self-organization”

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