A Framework for Self-Managing Teams!

posted by Dilip on February 25, 2019

My last week’s blog, Demystifying Teams, resulted in many private emails, calls, and discussions, most of which were with my clients. One client, during our session, after the blog was posted, discussed with me an idea that he implemented in his team (both here and off-shore) with significantly improved team performance and autonomy. I also then remembered from my past a similar approach I had taken to make my team (of some 300) self-managing. My thanks to Ariba’s Rahul Sule for bringing this up for discussion during our session.

After our discussion I decided to develop that model further and invoke some of the memories I had in the way I worked with my team and post its evolution as a sequel to my last blog. I welcome your feedback and ideas on this model and any ideas you may have from my previous blog on teams as well.

Self-Governing Teams

The idea of self-governing teams is not new. As I discussed in my previous blog some teams can only be self-governing by their very function: Surgical teams, Emergency Medical Teams, Seal and Special-Forces Teams, among others. To extend this concept to traditional project and cross-functional teams in a business setting is, however, a new concept and a stretch.

Why?

There are many reasons why project and task-driven teams tend to be less amenable to self-governance: team members are typically drawn from different functional areas within a company and tend to have different priorities and agendas stemming from their own departmental loyalties; because these teams tend to be organized for a specific task or a project they limit their commitment to the task at hand and go away after the task is done, without much concern about their next team and what it may look like; etc.

The other side of the equation, too, is how team leaders deal with getting their team to the Performing stage, carefully taking its members through the required Forming, Storming, Norming, and finally, the Performing stage. Many leaders do not even think that providing leadership to go through these four stages is even their duty before they harness their team to the task at hand, often wondering why is their team not performing like the Seal-Team Six?!

The upshot of this lack of awareness—unconscious incompetence—on the part of the management, team leader, and even the members of the team often results in the team requiring ongoing management of its affairs to deal with conflicts, missed milestones, differing agendas, getting off-track, and sometimes even facing the dreaded Groupthink (a’ la NASA’s Challenger style).

Although the concept of a self-governing team appears intuitively appealing—even seductive—many fail to see the effort required to make it a reality. In this blog I posit a model for self-governing team that has worked in experimental situations—some with my clients’ teams, including where I was leading large teams early in my career.  

Team Leader’s Work

Many team leaders are not aware of what it takes to organize a high-performance team. Just to remind those who do not know about the Seal-Team Six that raided the Bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, it already was a very tight-knit and well-oiled team, even before it came together for that mission. Then it spent nine grueling months going through all possible scenarios, contingencies, and risk factors in an actual compound that exactly mimicked the property they were raiding on that dark night, supervised by their then commander William McRaven. He was in the Situation Room on the day of the raid, alongside President Obama and others as depicted in that iconic photo of the raid’s control center in the White House.

No one expects a team to go through that level of preparation and effort before their mission is launched, but this extreme point is worth noting. Very few team leaders understand what it takes to plan a team ramp-up through the four stages of team formation, concurrently with how to plan a project. Most are too preoccupied with their project plan and assume that a solid project plan will bring their team together. They do not realize that a solid project plan is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a team’s buy-in and its success.

As the project plan gets underway to be ready to be finalized with resources, milestones, timelines, and dependencies the team leader must start working on their team members to get them socially prepared for their mission. The following graphic shows a framework of what it can take to set up a self-governing team to help the project achieve its mission with minimum management intervention through the course of the project.

Technology Architecture/Platform

The first and foremost element of the framework is the technology architecture of the platform that will deliver the solution the customer is looking for. In this case the customer can be an internal Product Owner (PO), a Product Manager (PM), or even a paying customer waiting for the solution’s delivery. Unless the team comes to an agreement on what architecture and platform design will be best suited to deliver the customer need, nothing much can progress further. In the event of later conflicts about trade-offs and priorities this basic design must serve as the sheet anchor (figuratively, A person or thing on which one relies as a last resort; an ultimate source of security) of customer needs in times of conflict, dispute, or ambiguity.

The team leader must spare no efforts and their leadership to get the team to converge on such a design. Once everyone buys into this design it becomes the go-to reference in challenging times throughout the project’s tenure.

Trust and Safety-Communication

The second element of this framework is the way team members learn to communicate among each other. Communication is the glue that holds the team members together and learning each other’s communication preferences and some common rules on how to communicate takes more than just learning or knowing the vocabulary. Open and free communication among team members require trust and safety.

Unless there is intrinsic trust among team members and unless each team member feels safe openly discussing their views, concerns, and ideas you’ll never have a Seal Team Six ethos. A feeling of deep trust and safety in a team are two critical elements for team members to freely contribute their best ideas and work. Without that everyone is second-guessing each other’s motives, actions, and agendas, a breeding ground for a toxic team environment.

Coming back to the Seal-Team Six, when it was on its mission in Abbottabad going after Bin Laden on that pitch-dark night the team members communicated with gestures, eyes, and semaphores; without a single spoken word they communicated perfectly throughout their mission, because they trusted each other and felt safe working together, despite the high danger they were all in.  

Social bond among team members

This is the penultimate factor in developing a strong team and requires the team lead to create an environment of camaraderie and kinship as the team cycles through its four stages. Once such a relationship is established among team members the team leader’s role almost become superfluous. Team members seek each other out and share their concerns, ideas, and objections to a particular topic or obstacle.

They resolve their differences through their kinship and respect for each other’s point of view and surrender their point of view when someone—anyone—presents a more cogent and compelling argument. When team members are able to get to this level of sociability and camaraderie any conflict gets addressed and resolved at the lowest level of its nascency.

Customer focus

This is the final factor in the team’s purpose: how to serve their customer to ensure that their expectations are met or even exceeded. Having clarity of purpose and what will result in customer exclaiming the Aha! When the final deliverable is made must always drive the team and all that it does. When each team member has this clarity of purpose any and all conflicts and impediments get addressed without the need of some authority figure—the very essence of a self-governing team.

So, this is the model and framework for a self-governing team. On its face it looks both simple and easy, but it is far from it. Its simplicity belies its practicality and it stems from the easy-to-understand and relatable model with everyday language that we all believe in. Its simplicity also makes it look deceptively easy to implement, but it is not. It requires hard and diligent work, particularly on the part of the team leader or manager.  

The reason it is not easy to implement is because the team leader must do all the ground work and get the team to the Performing stage after addressing each of the four factors defined here. This is hard work but worth doing. Once it is in place what the team does to deliver on its mission is almost magical.

Self-managing Teams and its Benefits

The benefits of self-managing (or self-governing—used interchangeably in this blog) are many. For one, the team lead or the manager overseeing the team does not have to get involved in the team’s day-to-day proceedings. Once the framework and clear accountabilities are set up the “train” runs on its own. The only time an intervention is needed is when there is either an external surprise (e.g. vendor delinquency that impacts the deliverables) or some risk does not pan out and a new strategy is required. Also, if a team member is replaced or is added the manager must intervene to make sure that the perturbation is minimal, and the team can quickly cycle through the four stages without missing a beat.

The freed-up time now available to the team lead or the manager under this new regime overseeing the team’s activities can be better utilized to do the management work that only they can do that quietly piles up as management debt (similar to technical debt) that few have any time to liquidate. This management work entails hiring new talent, developing new skills, building added capabilities and tools, and taking care of things that make teams more efficient—thus getting ahead of the game. This is now a virtuous cycle. Also, the manager can manage multiple teams, instead of just one, allowing them up their game.

The benefits to team and its members are also immeasurable. No one likes to be micromanaged. This way of governing teams through empowerment often results in everyone upping their game, rising to the occasion, and delivering the exceptional, not merely the expected! Good luck!

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