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Radical Management Book Club #3: Self-organizing teams

I’ve been participating in a multi-week series of online discussions, hosted by IBM, entitled the Radical Management Book Club. These were my opening remarks for the third week’s discussions on February 11, 2014. The subject was the new default way of organizing work—self-organizing teams.

I started getting into whole subject of management in 2008 when I looked around the workplace and asked myself: why do most jobs suck? Most people I knew weren’t thrilled with their work. So I asked myself: why? These were smart, educated people. And they were working for smart, educated people. These were well-known, even famous firms. Yet these people were for the most part disgruntled, even miserable. They would say to me: it’s my boss, or my firm, or whatever it was. But they certainly weren’t thrilled with their jobs.

I said to myself: this doesn’t make any sense with all these smart people disgruntled? Surely the human race can do better than this?

So I started reading general management literature and came across in the idea of something called high performance teams. It was talked about the classic books on teams like Smith & Katzenbach’s The Wisdom of Teams (1990s) and Richard Hackman’s Leading Teams (2002). These books said that high performance teams were very good and very motivating but they were very rare and almost impossible to create on a consistent and sustained basis: it was as if the stars had to be aligned. They were happy accidents.

So after reading that, I thought: these high performance teams must be very hard to find. So I set out to find them. It turned out to be the opposite. They turned out to be very easy to find. I asked people if they had ever known one. I would say: “Think back to a time when you had a really good experience in working with other people in getting some done. Ever had that?” Lo and behold, almost everyone was able to come up with a high-performing self-organizing team.

So this was a big discovery for me. It meant that self-organizing teams weren’t this rare strange phenomenon. Almost everyone had had an experience of it and everyone knows what a great self-organizing team is, because they have experienced it themselves.

That made it even weirder that most people were not currently in such a high-performance team. Most of these people were disgruntled in their current job, even though they knew what it was like to be in a great workplace. Almost all of them said that they would like to be in such a workplace. So I asked them: why aren’t you in such a workplace now? They looked at me and said basically, “Are you kidding? That’s not the way work is.”

 “We don’t know how to recreate that experience.”

In effect they were repeating what is written in The Wisdom of Teams and Leading Teams: High-performance teams are very rare and only occur by accident when the stars are aligned. We don’t know how to create them systematically.

I was therefore thrilled when I came across the world of Agile and Scrum and Lean and Kanban and found that there was a whole body of knowledge on how to create them systematically over and over again. And moreover, there were hundreds of thousands of people practicing this on a daily basis.

There was this vast source of expertise on the subject, almost totally unknown to general managers.
  • There are a number of characteristics:
  • The group is given the possibility of self-organizing, that is, the autonomy to decide how to organize itself and how to solve the problem. Fake autonomy isn’t good enough. It has to be real.
  • The group is given responsibility: the team has the ball. There isn’t some other management person or group working at cross-purposes or second-guessing the work of the group. The team members know that they have responsibility for deciding and have accepted that responsibility.
  • The team is working together. The members of the team are looking beyond their own interest and are focused on solving the team’s problem, not on pursuing their own interests. There is cross-fertilization: they are working together to solve the problem.
  • They are focused on completing the task. This is not about making inputs into its solution. This is about taking the ball the whole length of the field.
  • It works best when we are dealing with a complex problem, but I also found that it’s not limited to that. Toyota and the Joie de Vivre hotel chain showed that you could also use it for routine work. The goal becomes: “find ways to make this work better.”
  • The goal must be inspiring. The team must be self-motivating. “Delighting customers” is a generic form of an inspiring goal: people like helping people. (Goals about things are often fake goals. For example, Google’s supposed goal: “organize the world’s information.” How does that relate to buying Motorola or building driverless cars? It doesn’t. It’s fake goal. It’s good PR, but it doesn’t explain what Google does.) So it’s safer to stick to goals that relate to people.
And of course the idea continues to expand as we see networks and even vast ecosystems being managed in this way, where hierarchical command and control simply isn’t possible.

A very old idea

In my work I discovered that this is a very old idea. King Henry II of England way back in 1166 used it to establish trial by jury. Throughout the 20th Century, management experts have talked and written about it, starting with Mary Parker Follett in the 1920s, on through Douglas McGregor in the 1960s, Smith & Katzenbach in the 1990s, Richard Hackman wrote about it in an anecdotal way. So this is not a new idea.

What Agile and Scrum and Lean and Kanban did was to codify the principles in a very detailed kind of way so that you could systematically recreate these teams. This is a major management discovery, even if most general managers are unaware of it.

So we now know how to recreate them on a systematic basis. Why don’t managers do it all the time? There are various pretexts given. These are really fake answers.

 “I don’t know what self-organizing teams are”

Answer: False: look at your own experience.
Look at juries.

“They aren’t good for routine work because they are not efficient.”

Answer: Again, not true, if you use Agile methods for coordinating work, and working short cycles.

“They aren’t good for high risk work or highly regulated work like finance or health.”

Answer: Another piece of nonsense. Do you really want to have high-risk work done by demotivated people? Having a boss trying to control individuals from above is never as effective as a committed team that knows what’s going on and where the problems.

“They don’t work for big projects. It doesn’t scale.”

Again, nonsense, if you work in an iterative fashion. We are seeing some large scale implementations. You have a kind of Scrum of Scrums as at Salesforce.
Bob Sutton’s new book: Scaling up Excellence, shows that the scaling up process is basically applying Agile thinking to the challenge of coordination: you inspect and adapt and communicate.

 “We all know command and control is the only way”

This is a common response. For example, a so-called expert in finance told me just yesterday: “You’ve got to have controls; there’s no other way.” Even when I presented the evidence of the financial sector illegalities over the last ten years, he still insists: controls are the only way.
It’s true that people were taught this was the only way. But that teaching was based on an illiterate workforce that didn’t understand what they were doing. Again, it’s simply nonsense.

“Self-organizing teams are out of control.”

This simply isn’t true if you use Agile methods and you have specific goals which the team formulates and they have short deadlines.

“As a manager, I sleep better knowing there are controls in place.”

Richard Hackman even endorses this piece of nonsense this in his book, Leading Teams. Ironically he gives the example of Southwest Airlines and United Airlines. He says the managers of United Airlines sleep better than those of Southwest Airlines, because United uses rules and controls and Southwest allows their teams to self-organize. It’s ironic because United has gone bankrupt a couple of times while Southwest has been the most consistently profitable airline decades. The sleep that those United executives slept was the sleep of self-delusion.

“I just like being in charge and giving orders.”

Managers rarely admit that they like the feeling of being in charge and giving orders, as mini-Napoleons. But it's certainly a factor. One can however learn to like a different way of managing: it has less stress and it’s more productive. If managers can’t learn, there’s always retirement or death.

“It only works in software. Those people are different.”

This is what I hear when I talk about this with those people who are cited as the world’s most influential management thinkers—the big management gurus.  When I tell them this Agile stuff is amazing, and suggest that they check it out, it’s clear that they simply have a personal distaste for software engineers, whom they seem to regard as the worst people in the workforce. They have an image in their minds of people with shaved heads and earrings and tattoos and unwashed bodies. The attitude is: “How could we possibly learn anything about management from them?”

As with many great discoveries throughout history, these ideas are coming from the wrong people. It happened in genetics. It happens quite a lot in medicine. But the truth is the truth. It sometimes happens that “the wrong people” made the discovery, but it is a better way. It’s only a matter of time before self-organizing teams are widely accepted in general management as it is in software development.

Practice #1: Articulate a Compelling Purpose in Terms of Delighting Clients

In general, it is more difficult to articulate a compelling purpose in terms of a thing than in terms of people. Things as goals tend to be either too mundane or too grandiose.
Work becomes meaningful because there is some good in it. The most meaningful jobs are those that help other people. A generic form of a compelling purpose is to delight clients. Doing something extraordinary for others is worth fighting for, something that can get the juices flowing.

Practice #2: Consistently Communicate A Passionate Belief in the Worth of the Purpose

In the world of work, the people who are the most successful are those who are doing what they love. Money isn’t what drives them. What drives them are intrinsic goals, the same as those of a great musician or athlete.
In hiring, managers must find people who are going to love what they are hired to do. These are people who take pride in their work, inspire their fellow workers to greatness, and become the driving force behind the business. There is no way to find and keep such people unless the managers themselves feel the same passion.28

Practice #3: Transfer Power to the Team

If managers adopt the language of teams and teamwork but don’t relinquish power so that the team itself can decide what to do and how to do it, the managers will be generating pseudo-teams and all the cynicism that goes with them.

In reality, when teams are set up correctly, visibility isn’t zero. In radical management, a number of protections are in place that ensure that no large-scale disaster can happen. But at the outset, it can feel as though a horrible risk is being taken. Unless the feeling is anticipated and prepared for, it can lead to actions that undermine the shift in power.

Here we are in the heart of darkness. The essence of bureaucracy is that the manager knows best and stays in control at all times. That’s the default position, and every deviation from that, in the form of teams, task forces, networks, and the rest, is perceived as a temporary aberration, with the expectation of reverting back to the manager, who remains in control at all times. In traditional management, control and predictability have priority over performance.
In radical management, the values are reversed: performance is given priority over predictability. If the client is delighted in surprising ways, so much the better. The bottom line is client delight, not a predictable outcome for the system.

Practice #4: Make the Transfer of Power Conditional on the Team’s Accepting Responsibility to Deliver

This is not an unconditional relinquishment of power. The shift is conditional on the group’s actually delivering on delighting clients. It’s an offer, and the team has to accept the responsibility to deliver. Then in due course it must deliver.
Most teams don’t start with a fast, rapidly improving trajectory. They go through a process of storming and forming before they develop norms of behavior. In this initial period, management must be willing to persist and not give up at the first hiccup. They must help identify and remove impediments. In effect, management must adopt teams as the basic mental model of the way things are going to be organized.

Practice #5: Recognize the Contributions of the People Doing the Work.

Recognizing teams that are succeeding in delighting clients is key to sustaining high performance. Recognition is not by itself sufficient, but it is necessary.

Good management requires both informal feedback and formal feedback mechanisms that systematically pay tribute to performance that contributes to the organizational goal of delighting clients. 28

Practice #6: Make Sure That Remuneration Is Perceived As Fair

High-performance teams are driven principally by intrinsic rewards. People will give their best only if they feel the desire to do something because it matters, they enjoy it, it’s interesting, or it’s part of something important.

Extensive research shows that financial rewards–extrinsic motivation–work well for tasks with a simple set of rules and a clear destination to move toward.  Financial rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus and create tunnel vision.

So pay needs to be appropriate. A set of arrangements needs to be in place where monetary rewards support self-organizing teams and do not undermine them.

Practice #7: Consistently Use Tools and Techniques That Create and Sustain Self-Organizing Teams

Against a long management tradition of withholding power and counterfeit empowerment, it can be hard for a team to believe that it is actually being given autonomy to decide.

By its actions, management needs to signal that this is not another version of hierarchical bureaucracy. This is not top-down command and control under a new label. This is genuine and different.
Steve Denning’s most recent book is: The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management (Jossey-Bass, 2010).
Follow Steve Denning on Twitter @stevedenning

Article Rating

Current rating: 5 (1 ratings)
Lauren Feehrer
Wonderful post! So many great rebuttals to the many blockers experienced when making change like this.
3/12/2014 9:51:20 PM

Steven Crago
I've been fortunate to had the opportunity to attend these sessions. There's been some very interesting conversations.
3/13/2014 5:32:14 AM

Meghan Robinson
Hi Steve,

Would you be okay with us highlighting this article on our new AgileCareers Blog?

You can view the blog here:

I look forward to hearing your response! Thanks.
3/9/2016 5:47:07 PM

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