The 3 C’s of Self Managing Teams

Posted By - Geoff Watts


A lot of my work over the years has, to some degree or other, been related to helping support the growth of self-managing teams. In complex environments as leaders we can’t be expected to tell people what to do; it’s almost certainly out of our area of expertise so we need a cross-functional team to be able to take things into their own hands.

We don’t give out solutions to be implemented but rather problems to be solved.

The different degrees of autonomy

I’m often surprised by how many people talk about self-organisation as if it’s a binary thing but even before agile teams were “a thing”, Richard Hackman was writing about how there are different degrees of team autonomy.

The relationship between “management” and the team can be negotiated or contracted based on the trust levels and this autonomy trade-off can be revisited as the team matures.

Do Teams Want Autonomy though?

I’ve had a number of leaders over the years who have said to me “I’ve watched the Dan Pink video and get the theory but I’ve tried to give my team autonomy and they don’t want it”.

It’s true that it can appear that way at times.

The first thing that comes to mind (but I don’t tend to lead with this) is that we tend to see what we want to see and so if we (even subconsciously) want to stay in charge then we may notice anything that would justify keeping the status quo and the team dependent upon us.

Bear with me on this but let’s just stick with the view that autonomy is not only a necessity but actually a driver for humans. If that’s true and yet we do see behaviour that suggests the opposite, what’s going on?

I think there are a few reasons why we might actually shy away from something that we actually want (and need).

Whenever we are faced with something difficult (and taking responsibility as an autonomous team is definitely difficult) we need to believe we have three things in place:

The 3 C’s of Self-Organisation

Before signing up for something difficult I need to feel I have the skills I need to be successful. Instinctively I want to avoid personal failure and teams are no different. If we don’t have the competence – or even if we don’t feel competent – then it would be completely normal to be resistant to the pressure and spotlight of greater autonomy.

So the first step leadership need to take is to give the team the skills they need. Hard skills so they can perform the tasks they need but also the softer skills so they can communicate with one another, make decisions together, allocate work amongst each other, navigate conflict etc.

This is no mean feat but essential to avoid leadership feeling the need to step back in and resume control.

The Confidence Trap

Arguably it’s pointless having the skills or competence if the team don’t feel confident to use them. Confidence comes from a sense of psychological safety, a feeling that they won’t be unduly punished or judged for an imperfect performance. A feeling that they are allowed to grow, that it’s OK for it to be messy.

As an aside when a leader offers autonomy and then revokes it I typically see even bigger levels of motivational debt than when a team is denied autonomy in the first place.

Motivational debt refers to a level of demotivation caused by incoherent leadership i.e. leadership acting in a way that is not expected or wanted by those they are leading.

Coaching is a great tool here. Helping teams identify and tackle their limiting assumptions, challenge their constraints and boundaries in safe, gradual steps and prove to themselves they are capable and that bad things won’t happen. Or if they do, that they can overcome them and remain resilient.

Conditions are Critical

The system can wear down even the most capable and confident people. One of the biggest jobs for leadership as teams take on greater autonomy is to remove the things that can erode the energy and enthusiasm.

Bureaucracy, politics, broken processes, overwork, lack of focus…anything that limits the team’s ability to deliver value effectively need to be addressed.

Not all at once and not straight away. Teams aren’t unrealistic but if change stagnates and the team lose faith that they are being supported and things are getting better then they tend to regress quite quickly.

My view is that regular progress, no matter how small, is more important than any big change to the conditions that leadership make.

Teams are still key

No matter what process you are using; no matter what you call your leadership roles , to be successful in a complex world we need autonomous teams. Or SQUADs as I tend to talk about…but that’s for another post.

So if you find yourself asking yourself why your team isn’t grasping the autonomy you are offering them, think about the 3 C’s.

What’s the one thing that has had the biggest impact on team self-management?

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