Published in


Managing Self-Management

In the Black Mirror episode, ‘Nosedive’ Lacie’s every interaction is rated on a five-star scale. Her friend’s rate her likeability, the barista rates her banter, and a job interviewer rates her employability. Through augmented reality and an ever-present social- media platform, her societal worth is illuminated for all to see. Depending on her score, she gains access to certain social functions, services, and opportunities.

This may be a spooky future dystopia but it’s not that far-fetched. Already, in our reputation economy, influence is achieved by demonstrating just how damn good you are. Nowhere is this more apparent than the 2-way rating system of Uber drivers and riders.

A similar spirit is pervading the corporate world. We’re only at the beginning of the self-management wave. Here, there are fewer scorecards of who did whom which favour and useless posturing doesn’t overshadow performance.

Please Allow Myself to … Manage Myself

At its most rudimentary, the self-management movement is about companies that have done away with bosses. Their cultures treat employees like free agents that are encouraged to get comfortable with uncertainty, adopt a beginner’s mindset, and strive to continuously improve.

Through the advice process, workers use their creativity and problem-solving abilities do what they deem best. Women and minorities are recognised and listened to and those employees who once had their voices left out are spurred to step up. Self-management practices are an ongoing experiment evolving over time much the same as people do.

For those who have chosen to strike out on their own, managing one-self is par for the course. You need both confidence and competence to create value and get paid time and again.

Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, urged us to cultivate a deep understanding of ourselves. Whether it’s inside or outside the company (and indeed these walls continue to blur), knowing yourself means you can focus on your strengths and cultivate new skills on the go.

Adopting a beginner’s mind means will lead to asking better questions. Taking a wide-angle worldview will permit more empathy and tolerance. And seeing the forest from the trees will enable you to see the whole system of work as well as your place in it. Together, by rehearsing and refining these practices, we can all make our best contributions to the world.

The Organisation as an Organism

In 1980, a newly appointed CEO of Brazilian manufacturer Semco Partners did something radical. The fresh-faced 21-year-old Ricardo Semler abruptly fired 60% of the top managers. This shaper then took a huge leap of faith by permitting staff to set their own hours. In an ultra-congested Sao Paulo, they could finally commute when traffic was lighter. More importantly, it sent a message:: ‘we trust you’.

Semler was championing self-management long before it was a ‘thing’. At Semco, the sentiment ‘get your work done and enjoy your life’ is not a suggestion but a mandate. Semler foresaw that giving people more control over how they work not only helps them perform at their best, it also lets them understand and optimise the system of work that underpins the entire organisation. Under his leadership Semco grew from $4million in revenue in 1982 to over $212 million in 2003. More impressively perhaps, is their employee turnover rates that have been less than one percent.

Today effective managers are a rare breed — only 1 out of every 10 have what it takes to be a courageous leader. Hence, a practice like self-management, that rids the business of managers altogether, has come into favour. Through the advice process, workers use their creativity and problem-solving abilities to do what they deem best.

And what might self-management look like with 70 000 employees? A lot like Chinese consumer electronics company Haier. They’ve eliminated nearly 10 000 middle management positions and reorganised into an ecosystem of startups where employees function as entrepreneurs. Employees are active participants hungry to share risks and rewards. And as a result of this practice and other innovations in management and branding, the company has emerged from near bankruptcy to become one of the biggest appliance manufacturers in the world.

But what works for Buurtzorg, Semco, or Haier will not necessarily jive for others. Spotify has its unique brew of self-management and so does the tomato processor Morning Star and blogging platform Medium. The point is to get inspired and borrow from self-management practices in a way that treats the organisation as an organismresponding to current needs as situations change. It’s a recipe that should be modelled by others but made wholly their own.

There are several challenges to running a company with no bosses. When you can’t hide from the truth, opinions, fears, and motivations are all exposed. This emotionally charged atmosphere can be both powerful and a drag. Workers who tend to bring their narrower professional selves to work aren’t always game to bring their entire selves to the office. The vulnerability required isn’t for the faint of heart — some don’t want to deal with all the extra baggage when they get plenty of it at home.

(Don’t) Throw Caution to the Wind

The transition to a self-managed organisation can also be chock-full of hiccups. In 2013, when Zappos made the move to Holocracy (the former flag bearer of the self-management movement), 29% of the company’s staff abandoned ship. This is the type of collateral damage that can be expected. So before implementing a self-management practice, it’s imperative that all workers have elected to climb aboard. Only then can the organisation take advantage of processes and behaviours that respond well to changing winds. And as these practices gel, they form the breeze that wind that propels the company forward

It’s possible, heck it’s even wonderful, to see discipline invoked in such a way as to free and empower people. And what this enables is good work, excellent service, fair prices, and strong financial performance to all coexist. Hands down, investing in people in this fashion leads to high performance.

A Shapeless Wonder

A shapeless company does not necessarily mean a chaotic one. Amorphous organisations run on a different system altogether. They flex their unfair advantage through their fluid ability to share, decide, experiment, and learn. It’s less about knowing the answers and more about asking better questions.

“Beautiful organisations keep asking questions, they remain incomplete,” — Tim Leberecht

A responsive system of organising is a natural evolution to meet increasingly volatile times. And the most significant shift this bears on business is in letting go of a machine age mentality and celebrating the human spirit in its place.

Like the 2-way Uber review, you know your colleagues are performing at their peak and so you too aim to punch above your weight. And while it may not suit everyone, the benefits of this new way of working are hard to argue against — better engagement, creativity, collaboration, and productivity.

To roll with the times, we can be sure self-management will evolve into another organising model. The companies at the frontier will all adhere to one tenet so simple but all too often ignored: it’s humans that make the business.

The ripple effect as self-organising principles spread will be revealed in how the individual engages with work and how society as a whole is transformed in the process. Propelling us to achieve a five-star rating might not be such a bad thing after all.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Jonas Altman

Jonas Altman

Founder, Coach & Author of the bestseller SHAPERS → www.shapers.life/book