What Zappos’ Self-Managed Teams Should Look Like When They’re Done

Image by Getty Images

Traditionalists dismiss self-managed teams as woo-woo crap. But they are a central strategy for the emerging work world of the Participation Age. How do you know you have self-managed teams? The test is simple.

Why Self-Managed Teams?

The data is in — companies built around self-managed teams grow faster, have higher profit, higher productivity, and exponentially higher employee retention. I’ll be highlighting one in the coming weeks that went from less than 50% retention to 98% retention within months of instituting self-managed teams. This isn’t a fringe idea, a new idea, or an industry-specific idea. Going forward, companies that adopt self-management will thrive. Those that don’t will be left behind.

What Do They Look Like?

Self-managed teams look a lot like teams in sports such as soccer, hockey, lacrosse, or basketball. As you look at the following picture, ask yourself, “Who’s in charge here?”

The answer, of course, is the guy with the ball. And who is in charge here?

Whoever gets to the ball first is in charge.

Where’s The Ball?

Self-managed people are always looking for the ball and taking the lead with any ball that is near them. In self-managed companies, leadership isn’t a top-down thing, it’s a “where’s the ball?” thing. There might be four or five balls on the field at once, but everyone is taking the lead to grab each ball and make the right decision as to where it should go next. Self-management results in much less chaos than in a traditional top-down hierarchy full of managers telling people what to do at every step.

These two pictures are perfect examples of what a self-managed team should look like. Companies in all industries are racing to embrace this vital emerging work world concept, and are forming their self-managed teams around the above pictures. Zappos is among the most recent adopters of self-management who have announced they are headed in this direction.

Where’s The Coach?

One of the most telling indicators of self-management lies in the answer to this question. When you look at the above pictures, ask yourself, “Where is the coach?” If the answer in your company is, “On the field,” you do not have self-managed teams. Imagine a soccer game where the players stand in their positions and the coach runs out onto the field, kicks the ball from player 1 to player 2, then runs over, grabs the ball from player 2 and kicks it to player 3, etc. What would that communicate about the coach’s confidence in the players?

The more savvy managers don’t actually kick the ball, they just tell every player exactly where to kick the ball, and then the player pretends to have the freedom to kick it there.

A key principle of self-managed teams is at play here: When you give people tasks (Kick this ball from here to there), they feel used. But when you give them responsibility (Win the game), they take ownership.

Self-managed people take ownership. Traditional employees understandably simply complete the task, and feel more like characters tied to a foosball table than autonomous players in a meaningful game.

Tasks = Feeling Used

Responsibility = Taking Ownership

The Coach’s Role

Is the coach important? Yes, but in a very different way than a manager. Managers direct the ball-kicking, and are deeply involved in managing the process itself. But coaches are focused on the end result, not the process. They train, guide, encourage, provide resources and champion the success of others. Then they get out of the way. Managers never get out of the way.

Managers focus on making decisions and managing the process,

and they stay intimately involved.

Coaches focus on training, and on the result,

then they get out of the way.

More Confirmation

In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink identified the three main motivations people want to express at work; autonomy, mastery, and purpose. People who are self-managed have autonomy. They are empowered to make progress with the ability to make meaningful decisions on a regular basis about how, what and when they do things at work. Mastery is found in teamwork that is always challenging but not overwhelming, where people find themselves living stretched out, not stressed out. And purpose is about connecting teamwork and self to a cause that is much bigger than accomplishing simplistic tasks, that drives our deepest motivations.

There is no other entity structure that accommodates autonomy, mastery and purpose better than self-managed teams. Zappos is focused on getting there as fast as they can, with coaches on the sidelines supporting the players, and everyone making good decisions with whatever ball is nearest to them.

No Room For Ego

When building self-managed teams in the emerging work world, there is no place for big egos. Leaders who want to make others successful and then get out of the way are building remarkable companies everywhere. Those who want to use people to make themselves look better will be left behind. Zappos will know they have arrived when people at Zappos see themselves in the pictures above, and there are no managers in sight.

Do you have foosball figurines, or real players? Let everyone play the game in self-managed teams, and watch your company grow.

Article as seen on Inc.com