Enspiral Tales
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Enspiral Tales

Three pitfalls of self-management (part 2)

In Part 1 of this blog (inspired by a conversation with two colleagues of mine, Kate Beecroft from Enspiral and Michael Arnoldus) I wrote about one of the pitfalls of self-management in organisations: assuming self-management is for everyone. This follow-up piece looks at two other common pitfalls we have come across in our work and conversations with other leaders and practitioners.

Pitfall #2: The leadership vacuum

Many leaders I speak to in flat organisations, especially startups, wrestle with the concept of leadership in a self-managing context. “I want us to be a flat organisation but sometimes sh*t just doesn’t get done!” founders often complain.

It reminds me of a scene in Adam Curtis’ latest documentary HyperNormalisation (if you’re in the UK, you can watch it on BBC iPlayer) in which he talks about the Arab Spring movement. It’s a great example of how a decentralised network of people (aided by social media) was able to disrupt the power paradigm. However, when they succeeded, the group were unable to deal with the complex consequences they had created, resulting in a power vacuum that allowed the military to rush in and seize control.

Arab Spring: the power of a decentralised movement but also an example of how easy it is to inadvertently create a leadership vacuum

Similarly, in organisations (especially startups), when there is an allergy or discomfort with leadership, it creates a power vacuum. What typically happens is a founder or manager will default to traditional ways of leading (i.e. command and control) or hierarchical structures or processes are introduced to resolve these tensions. The problem is that this undermines for employees the feeling that they really have power or autonomy. If they know that when the sh*t hits the fan, you’ll become a dictator, they’ll never trust that they are truly responsible.

As an antidote to this leadership allergy, I’ve been following Peter Koenig’s research into the role of source in organisations, by learning from and collaborating with Tom Nixon and reading posts by his colleague Charles Davis. Those who have read Frederic Laloux’s “Reinventing Organisations” might recognise the role of source in people like Jos de Blok, the founder of Buurtzorg, or Jean Francois Zobrist, the CEO of FAVI. Though Buurtzorg and FAVI are self-managing organisations, Jos and Jean Francois played (and continue to play) key roles. In fact, Tom wrote an insightful piece on this very paradox, which Laloux responded to. Charles describes the role of source as being ‘authority as in authorship’, rather than a top-down kind of authority.

Pitfall #3: A delicate culture that is easily disrupted

In “Reinventing Organisations”, two companies Laloux writes about reverted back to traditional modes of operating when the CEOs left the businesses. Similarly, many people I speak to in startups start off self-managing but as they grow and tensions emerge, they introduce more and more traditional structures until they become the hierarchical organisation they had so desperately wanted to avoid.

One reason for this, Tom Nixon suggests, is a lack of clarity and transparency around who the source of the organisation is and what their creative vision is. When the role of source is not properly handed over to its successor, hierarchy and bureaucracy can quickly creep back in. Or in the case of startups, it’s common for the founder or CEO to become so involved that decisions begin to bottleneck with them as the company grows. Or maybe the founder/CEO is so allergic to the idea of having ‘authorship’ that they avoid it altogether. This leads to what Tom calls ‘creative entropy’, “where the organisation over time becomes less and less focussed, and more creatively dissipated.”

Netflix’s Chaos Monkey (Source: http://techblog.netflix.com/2014/09/introducing-chaos-engineering.html)

So how can you create a self-managing system that eventually becomes powerful enough to reject and survive such threats? Michael told us about Netflix’s Chaos Monkey project. It’s effectively a tool that knocks out one of the Netflix servers at random, without warning. The intention is to deliberately disrupt the system so that should a real-life server incident occur, engineers are prepared and service disruption will be minimal. We then talked about Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder”:

“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better”.

What if we could run Chaos Monkey or Antifragile experiments in organisations to disrupt people’s way of being or culture in order to make the system stronger? To give an example, Swedish entrepreneur Karin Tenelius (with whom I’m currently writing a book) told me the story of a team at a call centre which she helped transform from a toxic, fear-based hierarchy to a self-managing organisation. Employees had shifted their ways of being and working and everything was going well until an unexpected event occurred. One of the project managers was signed off work because of burnout. Once she had left, it suddenly became clear that this employee, though incredibly committed, competent and loyal, was also a perfectionist and had been clinging onto much more responsibility than the group had realised. Naturally, the team missed their valued colleague but Karin says this unexpected disruption was exactly the catalyst the company needed to push them to the next level of self-management. They had to work together to close the gap and create new ways of managing those responsibilities that were more transparent.

Kate tells a similar story about the risk of a dark economy developing at Enspiral — strongly engaged individuals taking on a disproportionate amount of the work and responsibility in the group without the group being fully aware. The cost of this is that the individual can end up resenting the group, or not being adequately compensated for their work, or, like Karin’s call centre example, if that person is suddenly absent, it can cause chaos.

So in summary then:

  1. It’s dangerous to assume that self-management is for everyone — forcing self-management on people is not productive. Instead, people should be given the freedom to engage at their highest appropriate level. Self-management skills, though, can also be taught. A coaching leadership style, social sensitivity, and cooperative decision-making are examples of key skills needed to thrive in a self-managing environment.
  2. Avoiding authority leads to a leadership vacuum — and when a vacuum is created, dark things can inadvertently fill the void (see also Jo Freeman’s The Tyranny of Structurelessness). I believe people in self-managing organisations need to get comfortable with the idea that it’s natural for someone to play the role of ‘source’ in an organisation or initiative. This doesn’t mean they have power over others, but they do have authorship. The more transparent and intentional we are about this at work, the more effective we can be as individuals and as teams.
  3. Self-managing systems can be delicate and easily disrupted — we need to explore and share stories about how we can strengthen them, creating antifragile systems that will gain from — rather than be destroyed or diminished by — threats or challenges.

This is Part 2 of a two-part series. You can read Part 1 here.



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Lisa Gill

Lisa Gill


Founder of Reimaginaire, trainer and coach with Tuff Leadership Training, host of Leadermorphosis podcast.