Empower the People and Let Them Self-Organize

Most enterprises today still have traditional Taylorian management structures. Leadership decides what needs to be built, a team of specialists and project managers creates detailed plans, and IT builds the solution.

But this structure is no longer suited to today’s business world: Large projects get delayed, and employees feel disengaged and unhappy. It’s time to let people self-organize.

What Self-Organization Can Do

Research has shown that giving employees freedom, trust, and autonomy can yield serious dividends. As Steve Denning put it: “Most high-performance teams are self-organizing teams.” So when a multinational financial services company approached me to help build its digital lab, we decided to completely follow this approach.

We built stable, self-organizing teams that incorporated talent from the business, design, and development departments. Each unit had one objective, and we gave employees the freedom to achieve it the best way they knew how.

The employee response was overwhelmingly positive. Staff satisfaction went from a 5 out of 10 to an 8 out of 10 within six months, and executives were able to focus their attention on the more strategic work such as the company’s vision for the future.

Why You Should Self-Organize

Self-organization is a core concept within the scrum-agile methodology. If done well, it leads to highly motivated people because they gain autonomy, mastery, and purpose. This will drive optimal productivity, and it offers the best results in today’s marketplace.

For one client we worked with, we found that two-thirds of the workforce spent most of its time telling the other third what to do. The sad truth is that many other companies suffer from this ill-conceived organizational structure. It not only robs many employees of a sense of ownership over their work, but it also robs executives of their time.

But when restructured along self-organizing lines, employees regain their sense of purpose. Meanwhile, executives and departmental leaders gain hours in the day to focus on macro concerns rather than micro and to help the business grow.

The Challenges of Self-Organization

As with any big structural change, there’s a lot of fear involved. In the shift toward self-organization, the role of middle management will change, and you need to keep everybody calm and communicative. It’s important to start small, learn from your experiences, and scale up gradually.

Your first self-organizing teams will be working within an environment that is potentially toxic, and you need to protect them to ensure that they thrive. We had one client who learned this the hard way.

The client started a new department with four self-organizing teams. But the pressure from the non-agile environment left people unmotivated and caused the teams to begin to disintegrate. We had to build an “organizational firewall” around those teams to help them thrive.

The mindset of the people in and around the team is vitally important. A lot of professionals want more autonomy, but often their bosses don’t support them. When you take away that impediment, the energy is automatically unleashed.

How to Implement Self-Organizing Teams

Of course, it will take time for your teams to grow strong enough to handle this new approach; for it to succeed, the teams need a proper coaching of mindset and behavior.

Compare it to a bird sitting in a cage for many years. Remove the cage, and it will still take some time for the bird to stretch out its wings and start to fly.

So here are three steps toward making your self-organizing teams a reality:

1. Define the Purpose of Your Team
Identify areas where your new team can help. Find an area that drives a lot of value for the business but underperforms because of the old management structure.

What would a miniature company attacking this business problem look like? What capabilities would it need to become autonomous and independent of other departments?

The answers to these questions will likely lead you to a cross-disciplinary team. Sit down with team members and explain their purpose, the context, and the reasoning behind the challenges that need solving. This will empower your team to make the right decisions without needing to involve management.

2. Adopt an Iterative Approach, and Assess the Surroundings
Once your first team is in play, take the time to think about the environment around your team and the impact it’s having on the wider organization. Give the team as much space as you can, and explain to managers and departments why it’s important to let the initiative fly. Take it step-by-step: experiment, learn, and scale up gradually.

Get rid of tedious approval procedures that slow down the team. Be sure to set boundaries for the team, and explain why they exist. But don’t let these boundaries get in the way of your team functioning properly.

3. Adopt a Coaching Leadership Style
Agile requires a different leadership style. Don’t try to solve any team issues in a management meeting; collaborate to solve it together. Remember: Self-organizing is about improving communication and teamwork, not about gaining control.

Don’t ask your team to create meaningless reports or work time estimates; ask for working demos of last week’s work instead. Ask your team members what metrics they need to show that they are continuously improving and what they need in order to improve faster.

People need to be able to fail safely to learn to become better; failure recovery is more important than failure avoidance. Give feedback on success to keep your team feeling empowered.

The organization of the future should be like a self-driving car. As a leader, you determine your destination. But let the car do the work, and interfere only if it needs your help.

The workplace paradigm is shifting in this direction already, and you need flexibility and agility to adapt to this pace of change. Self-organization is the way forward.

This article was originally published on Business 2 Community, and is also available on the Agile CIO blog and LinkedIn. Agile CIO helps organizations deal with the challenges of the 21st century by letting them break old habits and implement change.

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