01/26/2016 09:10 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2017

Moving Toward a Self-Managed Culture

Over the last three years I have been intrigued by the concept of self-management and truly believe that this is the future of organizational structure and we will see this be the prevalent way of working over the next decade.

I have found from my own experience that there is a lot of confusion out there as to what self-management is. So in this post I wanted to share my personal journey of realizing that self-management was something that I was moving towards, even without knowing the term self-management. I will also share some of the benefits that I have seen as a result, and finally, recommend some reading if you are interested in learning more about this fascinating concept.

For the last decade of my business career I have had a number of beliefs about getting the best out of people working in a team. I did not realize it at the time but these were the first steps in my self-management journey, these beliefs were:

  • People are happiest doing work they are passionate about, and skilled at, and these can cut across 'traditional' departments;
  • People work best when they have autonomy; when they know what they are accountable for; when they can measure their performance; and when they believe in the purpose of what they are doing;
  • People will decide for themselves how much energy and time they want to put into their work. If they are empowered and believe in what they are doing, they will put in a lot of energy and time into their work

When I first became the leader of a company I started my exploration of finding a better way of working in a company by having people work on lots of projects. Each team member still had a single job title which had important accountabilities for the day to day work, however, most of the work to move the company forward was done through strategic projects. For each project a person would have a role, maybe more than one, and they could choose for themselves how much time and energy to put into it knowing also that they had other accountabilities that also needed to be attended to. I found that people were happier and more productive and in some cases worked longer hours, but that they were happy to do so.

More recently after reading some books and articles on self-management I have taken this concept further and allowed people in my team to:

  • Select roles for themselves that they would like to perform knowing the organizations context and aspirations (on average in our team people have 5 roles)
  • Pick names for their roles that mean something to them
  • Work with other team members to self-organize these roles into teams and to define some accountabilities and targets together (on average each team member works in 2.4 teams)
  • Avoid having a single 'traditional' job title and instead create a title that captures the essence of the roles performed
  • Decide with their team mates the projects that are important to allow the company to move toward its goals with the help of some context setting

I have seen a lot of positives coming from this in the teams I have worked with which inspires me to want to continue on this journey. For example, members of our team:

  • Are happier knowing that they have a level of control over their work and have a lot of flexibility
  • Have freedom to easily move between roles in the organization and are not labelled as something or seen as only being able to work in one team
  • Are very agile and can react to changes faster and reorganize into new teams a lot faster than we used to

One criticism I have heard from people is that if you implement self-management you lose control of the team and that leadership is still important. What I will say to that is:

  • We still have team leaders of our teams
  • Each team leader gets together as a team to set the purpose and context for the organization and agree the goals and resources we have available
  • This then gets communicated to the teams so they can self-organize
  • I have seen no reduction in control, quite the opposite in fact

In conclusion I will say that my team and I are on a self-management journey, we have not yet reached the destination, we are taking it one step at a time and at a pace that we are comfortable with. Our culture has changed and we worked on our core values so they are in line with this new way of working. We are unlocking efficiencies as a result of this way of working and at the same time we are also improving our outputs which I am of course very happy with.

Finally, I will share that if you are interested in further exploring these concepts for yourself, I recommend two books that I read in 2015 which really helped me on my journey. One was Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux; and the other was Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal.

Mark Rowland is the 45-year-old, English/Australian CEO of DTP Ventures, the operational arm of Tony Hsieh's Downtown Project. Prior to working with Downtown Project Mark has had a career in professional services, retail, hospitality and ecommerce. He lives in Las Vegas. Twitter handle: @markorowlo.