Management writer Gary Hamel asks an interesting question about when management was ‘invented’.

It’s a strange question, because many people wouldn’t assume that management was actually an ‘invention’. Yet, Hamel determines that it had to be invented in order to serve a purpose. In the late 18th century, when that era’s industrial revolution took people from their craft houses and off the land into factories and mills to mass-produce products for import and export, Hamel suggests that ‘management was needed to turn humans into ‘semi-automatic robots’.

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These people didn’t have to think; just do.

Management was needed to take this asset and turn it into a robotic, programmable semi-machine that carried out orders and achieved specific goals in a specific time. This form of directive, controlled organisation was necessary to achieve the objectives of the day.

Fast forward 125 years and we now have a different world of key workers. People don’t need to be directed and organised to perform tasks that robots could do. We have shifted from industrial thinking to participative thinking and that allows us to introduce concepts that allow people to be creative, innovative and original.

Hence the concept of self-managed teams, which was first mooted over 50 years ago, but has evolved into an abstraction that has driven engagement and self-fulfilment.

Although not the right fit for all companies, self-managed teams have thrived in organisations where the culture supports it and where people are willing to accept increased responsibility.

What are self-managed teams?

They are a group of people who have the responsibility and accountability for producing results.

The old paradigm of management is task-oriented, where people with specialist skills work in a functional department, carrying out specific work assignments.

The paradigm of self-management shifts that perspective to each member supporting the overall objectives of the team, planning and organising the activities together, while rotating responsibilities.

Benefits Checked

The principle behind the process is simple; people in the team are in charge of the team ethos and create the synergies to make the team work accordingly. They can be employed as a permanent solution or on a project-by-project basis.

Overall benefits include:

  • Greater ownership of the tasks to be performed
  • Decision-making is spread and designated throughout the team
  • Team members manage their own time-keeping, scheduling and productivity
  • Members fill in for each other when there are holidays or sickness
  • Decisions are more related to the role because they are taken by people who know the situations and challenges better than anyone else
  • Creative ideas are generated by the team, rather than relying on higher management who aren’t involved ion the nitty-gritty, everyday environment
  • There’s an increased team spirit within team members
  • There’s less stress on their managers as the decision making shifts to the people who now have the authority to make progress
  • Team members can hire and coach new team members
  • Pay for performance is easier to administrate because of the clarity of results
  • A sense of trust and respect can evolve between team members

Dan Pink’s ideas in his book ‘Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us’ defines three concepts that makes us engaged and driven; autonomy, mastery and purpose.

When self-managed teams progress towards objectives, they display these three ideas and combine all their aspects

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Disadvantages Cancel

It may be that the culture of the organisation doesn’t support the processes that self-managed teams require, so you have to be aware of some of the pitfalls too:

  • A concept of ‘groupthink may perved, where individuals’ ideas are put on the back-burner in favour of conformity to team norms
  • Creative thoughts may be smothered as team members knuckle down to support others’ ideas
  • Some team members may see it as a step too far, and desire more management intervention
  • Fear-based decisions may inhibit free-thinking and progressive risk-taking
  • Too many team members may slow down decision-making, as there needs to be consensus between members
  • Management hierarchy may feel pushed out and will want more involvement in making decisions and reaching conclusions

How can self-managed teams be practically applied?

There’s naturally a certain amount of autonomy given to this kind of team dynamic, but they still may require guidance and assistance from a hierarchical system for specific decisions outside of their remit, like investment in machinery and other services.

Also, it may be hindered by a lack of cohesion between the different levels in an organisation. The trust that management has with their teams could be sorely tested.

In order for it to work effectively, a clear process needs to be in place to drive the actions and operations that will support the initiative of self-managed teams.

Here is an example of what needs to be done:

1) Have clarity of what you want to achieve and its measurable objectives

2) Decide how many people will ideally make up this team of self-managers

3) Ensure the team members buy into the result that is being sought

4) Provide the metrics for determining progress

5) Agree the processes the team will take on the journey

6) Clarify how the team will be rewarded for their endeavours

7) Decide what will happen if the team don’t hit the milestones on the journey

8) Determine the intervention required by higher management to assist if there is no agreement between team members in some situations

9) Get total leadership buy-in to the whole concept

10) Start out with baby steps and let it evolve and grow naturally

11) Monitor the leadership styles of team members, assessing people who may have higher management potential as time progresses

12) Give quality feedback to the team as results are measured and continue to develop decision-making skills within the team

As mentioned, self-managed teams aren’t the ideal scenario for all businesses, especially if quick decisions have to be made at higher levels within an organisation. Also, it requires a great deal of trust from management to ensure the values of the company are adhered to and results are achieved in line with budgets and timescales.

But the overall benefits and camaraderie engendered between team members may well convince leaders to try out the idea, helping it evolve in line with commitment and skillsets of the teams involved.

The old industrial age concept for managers telling staff what to do and how to do it may well be better suited to the 19th century. As we enter a new decade in the 21st, we owe it to our team members to get them to be more creative and participative in the new world of work.

Sean McPheat
Sean McPheat | Linkedin
CEO The MTD Training Group