“People are messy” (and other lessons from self-managing teams)

A friend once shared some pithy wisdom about humanity that I’ve returned to time and time again. “People,” she said, “are messy.” 

As human beings, we’re wired to want control, and self-determination theory describes much of what motivates us. Yet we’ve also evolved a highly sophisticated sense of hierarchy and social status, spending much of our brain activity on calculating how everyone relates to everyone else.

The tension between these innate drives is particularly evident at work, where we desperately strive to find our place in the very hierarchy we don’t want submit to, and where we need to cooperate and collaborate to get things done. It’s even more acute (and interesting) when it comes to self-managing teams. 

Here are some things I’ve learned from observing such teams trying to spread Working Out Loud in their organizations. 

“Who will lead our self-managing team?”

The spread of WOL Circles in an organization usually begins when someone tries one, tells their friends, and Circles organically multiply. As they spread over a few months, a number of individuals emerge who care about WOL and want to do more. Now what? 

This is a critical juncture. If these early adopters don’t coalesce, the movement grows slowly or fizzles out as the early adopters move on. But sometimes the individuals tentatively come together to discuss their motivations and aspirations. They start to coordinate the next steps, and the first few seeds become the beginning of a grassroots movement.

Critically, leadership comes from contribution, not appointment. The people who care more tend to do more - more organizing, more experimenting, more outreach - and a “co-creation team” forms. It can be fragile, though. Conflicts at this stage, whether due to differences in style or substance, can cause the group (and the movement) to split or disintegrate completely. Somewhat ironically, ego can be the bane of self-management.

“The Grass Ceiling” 

As the WOL movement in an organization starts to grow, other possibilities and challenges emerge. The opportunities to integrate with existing programs and to scale to more locations and divisions may well require resources and the shifting of priorities.

This is another critical juncture. If the co-creation team continues to run without a budget and relies solely on volunteers, the grassroots movement hits some hard limits. Over time, the enthusiasm for the original idea is worn down by the slow pace of change and the bureaucratic resistance of the organization. 

Instead of trying to fight the way things are, successful co-creation teams leverage them. They shift from being a completely independent group to partnering with HR & other transformation managers responsible for existing programs. They seek executive sponsors for political cover and for resources.

The team may still be self-organizing, but they attach themselves to the hierarchy in a way that enables them to make a bigger, more sustainable difference.

A different kind of "secure attachment"

A more subtle example of self-management is a WOL Circle itself. Circles are purposefully designed so anyone can start one without budget or permission. The Circle Guides give people some structure, but how and when to do the work is up to the Circle members. They’re self-managing and often (but not always) self-organizing. 

But how do you get them started? What do you do when a Circle needs help? What if they struggle midway through or someone drops out? 

The varying responses to supporting Circles reminds me of attachment theory in parenting. Some organizations are completely hands-off. Others insist co-creation team members attend some Circle meetings or involve themselves in fixing issues a Circle may be facing.

The results are predictable. Without any help at all, some Circles aren’t as effective as they could be. With too much meddling, the Circle members lose their sense of autonomy and accountability, and start to see their helper as the person responsible for their progress (and issues). The co-creation team suffers too, as they struggle under a growing support burden they created.

The best approach is a kind of secure attachment. Circles are left to manage themselves and do the work on their own, but they know they can reach out to someone for support when they really need it. To facilitate this, some organizations are creating networks of certified experts across the company to ensure Circles can readily find trained help if (and only if) they want and need it.

Some remarkable results

Is this revolutionary? No. But it is remarkable that people can drive change using this kind of hybrid approach, combining self-managed initiatives with institutional support. 

As evidence of this are the results of the HR Excellence awards in Berlin late last week. One of the winning submissions was from a group of eight companies - Audi, BMW, Bosch, Continental, Daimler, Deutsche Bank, Siemens, Telekom - who are spreading Working Out Loud. 

The recipients were the self-managing teams who, without budget or permission, introduced and spread a movement inside their respective companies. Even more remarkable, they decided to organize themselves into a cross-company community of practice to share innovations that could help everyone accelerate the growth of those movements. Their companies all celebrated their achievement, and several now have board-level support.

Yes, people are messy. But given enough space to experiment, enough confidence to resist fighting for status, and enough support to keep going, we can make work more effective and fulfilling than it’s ever been.