Why You’re Wrong About Self-Management

March 21, 2019

Agile or self-steering teams are no longer restricted just to the realm of software or IT: Instead, it’s a new management mindset that’s finding more takers and believers every day. However, there’s a huge void between aspiring to become agile and actually being agile as an organization.

A recent Deloitte survey of senior executives revealed that almost all respondents (94%) felt being agile and collaborative were among their top priorities to ensure organizational success. However, only a meager 6% of respondents could say that they were truly agile now.

So, why the gap?

More Questions Than Answers
The tenets of agile teams – fast-paced, innovative and adaptive – are extremely appealing to traditional companies that are battling attacks from vociferous markets and renegade competition. However, it’s easier said than done and most companies are unclear about what operational functions can actually be self-managed and what cannot. Managements often launch hundreds of self-organized teams, only to find (in retrospect) that those teams are bogged down by existing bureaucracies and a lack of direction.

When teams, that were until recently part of a traditional, hierarchical set-up, are suddenly declared self-organized, it leaves team members feeling lost. The once-managerial responsibilities like setting goals, devising strategies, resolving conflicts and reviewing performance, are now responsibilities of the teams themselves – with the manager assuming a more facilitating role. What it does is, raise more questions than answers; increase insecurities among team members; and lead to general chaos and frustration.

Boundaries In The Beginning
This is not to say that self-steering teams cannot be scaled to large, previously-hierarchical enterprises. In fact, companies like Amazon and USAA are great examples of traditional hierarchies that have transformed themselves into self-managed, agile organizations. There’s no denying that the journey into self-management, when undertaken correctly, can lead to increased productivity, lesser risk, greater quality, and higher morale.

But, self-management cannot be achieved overnight. Instead, companies need to let their newly-agile teams take baby steps towards complete self-organization. It’s wiser to facilitate teams by first clearly answering the question, “When is the team performing well?” When you do that, the discussion will invariably involve some boundaries that foster psychological safety.

Eventually, teams will grow confident enough to push back on those boundaries and enter into open dialogues on goal setting, strategy-formation, and performance evaluation. And, only when they’ve matured in self-organization, can teams truly embrace the agile mindset.

Don’t Rush Self-Management

Many organizations that are experimenting with self-management make the mistake of completely upending the power pyramid. They go from being a top-down organization to a bottom-up organization, without giving teams any time to mature into the concept of managing themselves.

The people in such teams are used to turning to their managers whenever they face a hurdle and now, all of a sudden, they’re expected to overcome those hurdles all by themselves. Additionally, they now need to be able to identify, on their own, whether they’re performing well or not. Very often, that’s a difficult discussion to have and it requires a lot of information that they either don’t have access to or know how to process.

So, completely flipping the organizational order – from top-down to bottom-up – can be quite intimidating and confusing for teams. That said, it’s important for such teams to have two things in place: A gradually decreasing support/guidance from the management and clarity on how to validate performance.

Psychological Safety Is Key
In other words, will the criteria that validate the team’s performance be set by the management; or, by the teams themselves; or, in a more hybrid fashion, where both the management and the team members have a say?

When the team knows which form of performance validation applies to them, it becomes easier for them to concentrate on innovating and adapting to change because they now have the psychological sense of safety. And, overtime, they can mature into completely self-steering teams that jointly decide the right course to follow and the best ways to validate their performance.


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