From historical tribes to the industrial factory line, organisational culture has been evolving for as long as human beings have been on the planet.
But the last decade saw a paradigm shift in how companies— particularly modern, progressive ones—go about structuring themselves.
Out with the old, hierarchical leadership models with managers and useless bureaucracy. In with team power and freedom to decide for yourself. Things will find their way when there’s will and skill.
It’s a notion we’ve subscribed to here at Futureplay. Who wouldn’t want to have the power of decision and autonomy in their work? And how cool would it be to achieve all of this by yourself, without a middle manager slowing you down? Now go, perform, have fun and flourish!
In theory, it’s perfect. But in practice, it’s a challenge to execute.
Many companies have tried, though in doing so have demolished some of the processes that were already working nicely, neglecting to focus on the ones that really needed attention.
In return, they created confusion, misunderstanding and overreaction amongst their employees (as highlighted in this great book by Miia Savaspuro) — as well as a fear of breaking contrived workplace rules that weren’t supposed to be there in the first place.
But what went wrong, and how do we at Futureplay try to do it right?
What is self-management?
Let’s start by defining self-management. There are many terms one could use for the subject so, for clarity, in this blog post the term self-management is used loosely as a synonym for self-directedness, self-determination or self-organization. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, self-managed means:
making your own decisions about how to organize your work, rather than being led or controlled by a manager.
This sounds clear. You’re in charge of how you work and reach your goals. You have the independence, but also the responsibility.
It also hints that in a work community you do the manager’s job by managing your own work so that they don’t have to.
All of this may lead you to a conclusion that being self-managed in a work community is basically about yourself, and not that much about the others around you.
And I feel that that’s when the discussion gets a bit derailed.
No matter how much we talk about self-management and expect that it is something that starts from within a person, that’s only half the truth.
The more complete truth is that in an organization, it is the environment, the company’s internal set of agreements or ways of working, the framework that defines a person’s responsibilities, and the people around you that enable self-management.
For example, at Futureplay, our game team members are expected to be self-managed both within their team and our community.
At the same time it is also expected that they involve others before making decisions, ask for feedback, be transparent about their work, and share their knowledge with others.
Because, firstly, when you share your ideas with others, there may be new viewpoints. Secondly, through the discussions you get others’ buy in which is crucial for you to be able to continue. Thirdly, sharing helps others to see the big picture and do their job.
In addition to being mindful about the organization’s internal set of rules or agreements, having an understanding of what is and isn’t expected of you and who’s responsible for what give you clarity and more freedom to focus on your own work. That‘s how you see your own and everyone else’s role and main contribution from the helicopter perspective.
The point is not to rule out the possibility of participating in other areas but to merely state that it is not expected. In this kind of a framework, a joint understanding, if you will, it becomes possible for individuals and teams to be self-managed.
But you don’t need to do it all by yourself
One of the misconceptions about self-management is that you should have all the answers yourself because your work is seen as somewhat ‘autonomous’.
The way I see it, and how we do it at Futureplay, is that it’s totally the opposite: you need to involve people around you, be transparent, ask for and accept help when you need it.
In addition, you cannot have your own agenda because your work is a part of a bigger picture. Your organization has (or at least should have) a shared goal.
Being self-managed doesn’t mean everybody gets to do whatever they like. It means that within a certain framework, you have a role and you get to decide certain things but, at the same time, to reach your own and shared goals, you are dependent on others.
But how can you have leadership and a self-management?
It’s a common misconception that self management and leadership cannot co-exist.
But there is room for leadership in a self-managed environment. In fact, it’s essential.
Miia Savaspuro, author of Itseohjautuvuus tuli työpaikoille — mutta kukaan ei kertonut, miten sellainen ollaan (2019) on self-management states that having self-managed employees doesn’t remove the need for leadership — it actually increases it.
That’s backed up by Hanna Poskiparta and Tuuli Viranta’s study Ytimessä — Esimies itsensä johtamisen mahdollistajana (2018). Because people have different perceptions and experiences of self-management, it takes a lot from the leader to, firstly, know and understand their team members well and, secondly, cater for everyone’s individual support needs and expectations.
And this, in my opinion, is a very relevant point: If you think about the challenges of leading a team in which there are people coming from different types of organizational structures, nationalities, seniorities and expertises, everyone looks at the situation through their own lens.
Helping everyone to find a shared understanding of what is expected in a self-managed organization, supporting everyone individually in their development needs and keeping a shared goal in everyone’s mind is a very important task.
And also one that we here at Futureplay are working on, but haven’t mastered yet.
Other company culture evangelists, such as Gustavo Razzetti and Philip Anderson, discuss the importance of leadership in a self-managed organization. Razzetti, CEO of Liberationist, states that in a self-managed environment a leader’s role is to coach, grow, connect and support teams by offering an outsider’s fresh perspective on matters. Anderson, professor at INSEAD, explains his view in Biology of Business (1999): ‘Self-organization does not mean that workers instead of managers engineer an organization design. It does not mean letting people do whatever they want to do. It means that management commits to guiding the evolution of behaviors that emerge from the interaction of independent agents instead of specifying in advance what effective behavior is.’
Be driven by your company’s goal and values
Earlier I briefly mentioned the organization’s ‘shared goal’. Its importance here cannot be understated. But where does it come from?
It comes from the company’s story: their history and their plan for the future. It should also resonate from the company’s values.
The story tells the soul of the company; where the company is coming from, where it is going, and what are the means to get there. In more traditional terms: the company’s vision, mission and strategy.
If the story has been built with thought, it helps the employees prioritize tasks and navigate in the community, eventually supporting employees’ self-management. And when the goal is clear in everyone’s mind, it also shows in the company’s bottom line.
Razzetti develops this in his blog post ‘Becoming Self-Organized: A Leader’s Take on Driving Change’. He writes:
‘Encourage people to use the vision as a reference for each group to validate and test their decisions. [..] I’ve encouraged them to answer a simple question that helps them make the right choices — will this [new program] reinforce our values and purpose, or will it move us backward?’.
Not a solo act, but a team effort.
Whatever reason a company may have for encouraging its employees towards self-management, it must understand that it is more than one management-level decision.
It’s a decision that affects everyone in the work community — and it takes a lot from both leadership and employees. Without open discussion, constant iteration, support, sharing experiences and psychological safety it is a long road.
But when an organization truly and deeply understands self-management and all its implications, it can be a great opportunity for growth on many levels. No one can and should do it alone — because it is not a solo act, but a team effort.