To succeed in fast-changing, dynamic markets, organizations must be increasingly flexible and adaptive. Self-managing teams are a key tool in creating such organizations. The design and agility of these teams enables them to respond quickly to evolving market situations, while improving employee engagement and effectiveness. The question is; how should we lead these teams? What are the key focus areas and what do they need – not only to succeed – but to thrive?
A self-managing team (SMT) is a group of individuals that use their diverse skills, knowledge and experience to achieve a common goal. Within boundaries, it’s the team members’ responsibility to manage their own work, decide how to achieve goals, grow as a team, continuously improve, and manage stakeholders. Successful or high-performing SMTs also help other teams and co-workers to grow, improve and thrive. Take for example a sales and marketing team with responsibility for an entire market segment like hospitality, or the metal industry. The team can’t change the price or name of the product solely. It would however, have a clear mandate to prioritize work, create a marketing strategy, find resellers, and do other similar tasks. Some activities that fall under the SMT’s remit include:
Empowered to decide on processes, objectives and product details, self-managing teams are better equipped to handle complex, unpredictable situations. They combine their skills and expertise to track deviations, make improvements, refocus and change trajectory. This contrasts with a managerial hierarchy (Lee et al. 2017), where employees report upwards and receive instructions from the hierarchy. When changes occur, a manager must be insightful and informed enough to give sound direction to multiple employees. Often, this requires alignment with other managers first, which slows down the response. If new instructions cause problems elsewhere in the organization, it often takes time before this is noted, the cause is found, and the instructions are improved. This scenario reduces both motivation and productivity. SMTs on the other hand constantly collaborate with other teams, pinpoint improvements and learn fast, making them more motivated and productive.
|Self-Managed Teams (SMTs) context||Managerial hierarchy context|
|Effective, even in fast-changing markets||Efficient in stable markets|
|Synergy in team intelligence||Not smarter than the processes or information available|
|Focused on the outcome (what to achieve)||Focused on the task and process instruction (what to do)|
|Successful when a goal is achieved||Successful when an individual task is completed|
There are some common misperceptions about SMTs, usually related to autonomy, self-direction and planning.
When a team manages its own work, the leader’s job shifts to creating a suitable context or environment. Designing, building and improving the team context involves a lot of work, so where to focus on? Three key responsibilities arise from this new type of leadership:
Implementing a SMT does not guarantee immediate success. This is about more than declaring a team self-managing. Hard work, attention and different leadership skills are needed, such as the ability to ask ‘powerful questions’, engage with ‘radical candor’, ‘professional facilitation and ‘empathetic listening’. Years of talking to, coaching and observing leaders reveal that a priority change is needed, a realization that improving the context matters more than daily priorities or task assignment. It’s shifting focus from ‘actions, schedules and metrics’ to ‘facilitating ownership, trust and direction’. It’s a move from managing teams to explaining to stakeholders (and upper-management) what they should do differently to help teams grow faster. Above all, it’s about spending time really listening to teams, seeing what they need to take ownership in areas such as the product, customer satisfaction, planning, quality and continuous improvement.
Take the first step in building and effectively leading SMTs. Tap into the resources below.