Sabine Safi
Sep 5, 2016 · 7 min read

Self-management, liberated company: 3 reasons to never use those words

A little while ago at my previous startup, I was getting sick with some classic team patterns. Silo effect between teams, lack of trust between employees and management, ongoing frustration from a feeling of lack of power in the team, that caused defocus to everyone… That’s when I stumbled upon these two concepts: Self-management and the Liberated company. I was fascinated, convinced to the core, so after discussing it with my co-founder, we announced to the team that we were shifting our management model in favor of these incredible concepts.

And well… Doing so — saying so — definitely has been one of my biggest mistakes in these recent years.

Should we dismiss Laloux, Getz, and Carney as irrelevant?

Don’t get me wrong. Those two books: Freedom Inc. and Reinventing Organizations, are awesome, inspiring, fascinating reads that definitely transformed my vision of management & society. If you are interested in more agile, frictionless and happy teams/companies/non-for-profits etc., I recommend you read them.

We saw some incredible changes happen in the team. When employees start behaving like adults (because you treat them like adults now!), the game is totally different. Some strategical projects that had always been a pain for us started working well. The team got incredibly more engaged because they knew that now they were making the decisions and they could not rely on a manager to take the accountability for them. We came to game-changing decisions all together, decisions that were not always exciting, but that were necessary. And for some of these decisions, it would have been much longer to decide or to put in action, had it relied solely on the management team.

Side note: I learned that any organization needs leaders. At least you need them to take care of the people and reinforce the vision every day. More to come on this.

But there is one major point that is always missed out about self-management. You should NEVER. SAY. YOU’RE. PUTTING. IT. INTO. ACTION.

For 3 vital reasons:

1. The moment you say it, your team loses its focus on your vision — and maybe you too.

You want your team to do just <insert your corporate vision/purpose here> right? You don’t want them to:

  • Spend days wondering how to do this or that in a self-managed team (but they still need to know how to do their work!).
  • Spend countless meetings discussing how to organize (you do need time to discuss how the team gets sh*t done. But way less time than to actually get it done).
  • Debate about “if we do this we are not a liberated company anymore” or that “we cannot do that, because we practice self-management here”. The only reason why you should or should not do something is because of how it affects your corporate objective (your WHY) or how it fits your culture.

The whole point is, self-management and the liberated company are not your “WHY” (your vision), they cannot be a corporate value either. They are a means to reach your purpose, they are a “HOW” you do it.

Who cares about self-management and the liberated company as long as you reach your business goals and are happy doing it as a team?!

So if you want everyone to stay focused on what really matters — reaching your organization’s vision, and staying true to your culture — do not throw out words that carry so many expectations, meanings, and consequences.

Simon Sinek in his brilliant Start with Why TEDx talk

2. It is impossible that every single practice described in the books will fit your team.

Maybe your organizational purpose has always been defined by the CEO, and everyone is happy with this.

Or maybe you have defined financial thresholds for employees, indicating how much validation they need before making a purchase, and it works just fine.

Trouble is, in their books, Laloux and Getz talk about companies that let their vision emerge from the group. And also companies that will let employees make any spending they see as justified.

So, if you decide to turn to self-management, will you ditch how you worked before? And if you decide to take only what fits you, can you still make the ‘self-management claim’? Self-management and the liberated company are deeply associated with this kind of practices, so be assured that your team will be expecting them and will find you inconsistent if you get rid of them.

My point here is that while most self-management practices may fit your organization, it is impossible that all of them do. And for most people, claiming you are a liberated or self-managed company implies that you adopt them all.

So pick up the practices that are consistent and compatible with your context, maybe become a 99%-liberated-company-by-the-books. But stay free to make choices: don’t commit to any fixed model. No dogma.

Important reminder: those management models are definitely not fixed by essence!

3. Those words enforce a ‘black or white’ situation. This will make you backward as soon as it gets really hard to implement (and it certainly will).

There is no “partly liberated company” or “somehow self-managing team” (who would enjoy describing her team like this?). When you say you begin with self-management, it means that now, you do it fully, and before this, you did not do it. Black & white.

Credit: Kelly Sikkema on Flickr

And someday you will encounter some difficulties (as does any team). Maybe with your sales goals, maybe with your meetings’ efficiency, maybe with how people deal with remote work. Maybe all of the above all at once (this reminds me of something :) ). Then, when looking for solutions, you will be embarrassed because, huh, you don’t know how to deal with them in a self-management context. Even more embarrassing, you start wondering if self-management is not the problem in itself. And that little, reasonable, safety-seeking voice in your head will be here to remind you that classical management comes with a whole set of documented practices for this situation. And, oh, command-and-control, long time no see!

If you do not put those big words onto your actions, you will not feel triggered to throw everything away all at once. You will look at which particular practice is missing/not working, and just fix that. Which is way less painful than going all the way back, for everyone :)

The case about Holacracy

In brief: Holacracy is one specific model derivating from self-management. It is well-rounded and comes with a (big) set of definite practices, roles, and even a Constitution that Holacratic teams commit to respect. Pretty much like a ready-to-use template or operating system for your team.

So if you start functioning as a Holacracy, there is little chance that you don’t tell your team about it. But actually, Holacracy is not for me. I guess it works really well for some organizations, but for my part, I would not turn to it, because I find it:

  • Complex (not intuitive).
  • Rigid (same structure and processes for every organization).
  • Easy to twist the model and lose its underlying ‘spirit’ (and still claim you work in Holacracy because you respect the roles and the practices).
  • And, I don’t like being put in a mold.

This being said it is very insightful to dig into this model, understand its intricacies (and why they have been formed — indeed it is really smart), and maybe use some practices that fit you.

Note: I have not worked in a Holacratic organization. My opinion is based on extensive reading, discussing with practicing startups and my experience in using some of Holacracy practices and roles in my previous startup. Doing this I added a considerable and unnecessary level of complexity, of which we got rid later.

To sum up: no words, all action

Make your organization and yourself a favor:

Never say that you practice self-management, never say you are a liberated company. Repeat, again and again, the vision everyone should be pursuing in your team. Selectively get inspired by those models, as do most successful startups. And then let your actions create the management style you are aiming at.

Enjoy the ride and come discuss the topic! :)

ps1: Big thanks to Jean-Daniel Guyot (CaptainTrain), Cédric Mao (FlyTheNest) and Cédric O'Neill(1001pharmacies) for the discussions that helped clarify my opinion. And to Marc Rougier (Elaia) for reading, correcting and commenting :)

ps2: I am looking for organizations with a satisfying compensation model, to discuss and write about. Satisfying = with some internal transparency (not necessarily fully transparent), that minimizes team’s chit-chat about each individual’s wage and that has been working for at least 1 year with a 20+ people team. Buffer is a great example!

Ideas or introductions will ensure you a great amount of love and gratitude from myself ;) → in the comments or sabine dot safi at gmail.com.

Sabine Safi

Written by

Entrepreneur, I work on several projects including MerciCookie— Co-founded @1001pharma long ago — Tireless optimistic — Let’s make the world a happier place!

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