Active Management vs. Self-Organization

I often have arguments in my head about where to draw the line between taking action and allowing self-organization.  As a manager, when is it OK to intervene or over-rule or otherwise take an active role in the team?

I think there are some no brainers we can get out of the way quickly such as situations involving obvious legal or ethical issues.  Yes, you should intervene.  Period.

For day-to-day issues, I tend to philosophically tend toward self organization.  Let the team figure it out themselves.  This helps everything from learning to morale to competency.

In practice however, my first instinct is to act.  Yup, I admit it.  It’s actually very, very difficult to take a hands-off approach.  I’m sure it has something to do with our culture, the big companies I worked for in the past, and just my type A personality.  There has been so many years of people working in environments where pit bull performance is praised, the loudest voice is singularly heard, and promotions are given on the basis of being the perceived as the smartest person with the best ideas.  So many managers of this old regime have this system built up around them and have perpetuated its construction that many companies now exist with the expectation the manager is the smartest person in the room and responsible for making most decisions.  To make matters worse, we’ve come to call much of this behavior “leadership.”  There are not enough quotations around that word to show my sense of disdain…

OK, so how did I snap out of that mindset?  And how do you get other managers to do the same?

For me, it clicked while reading about the Conant-Ashby Theorem.  Read more here:

The basic idea is that if you accept that you are doing complex creative work within a complex system, then the best way to actually control that system is to distribute decision making to the lowest responsible/competent level possible.  Hear that?  Self-Organization and delegation of decision making authority is about control.  It isn’t about just letting people be or giving up power or becoming a laissez-faire manager.  As a manager, fostering self organization and leaving most decisions to the team is your only hope of controlling the complex system in which you exist.  This, my manager friends, is what switched the lightbulb on.

Constantly remind yourself each time you prepare to snap into action that usurping that decision, taking control in the moment, telling the team what to do, etc, is actually stripping the control of the system away from you – the exact consequence you thought you were avoiding.  You are limiting the health of the entire system to only your train of thought and decision.  Delegating decision making authority to a self-organizing team allows you to expand and grow the health of the system.

Don’t believe or don’t think this works in the real world?  Fine.  Try an experiment.  Take a common situation that presents itself often and has typically required your intervention or your decision as a manager.  Tell the team that from now on, they are solely responsible for these decisions.  Tell them they have all the skills and knowledge needed to make these decisions, and although you’d like to be informed on an ex-post-facto basis, you will not be involved in the decision making process in any way.  Try this for a while.  I’ll bet you won’t even miss that responsibility.  And I’ll bet you’re teams will surprise you with the outcome.


Take No Dependencies!

As a product owner and coach, one common question I often get is “how do you deal with cross team dependencies, like when Team A has to complete some work before Team B can begin theirs?”

If the room is silent after that question is asked, before too long somebody will likely suggest a “dependency matrix” or “tracker” or “gantt chart in MS Project” or the like.  Do not let the room be silent for too long.

There are many possible solutions to this problem, all of them more effective that inserting an antiquated project management tool like any of the above.

1) Team A and Team B work together to complete the work starting with the prerequisite work (originally ‘assigned’ to Team A) and then moving on the post-requisite work (originally ‘assigned’ to team B)

2) Team B goes and works on something else, and Team A communicates to Team B when the dependency has been met.  No need to “track” anything – Team A is full of smart people who will communicate their status to Team B.

3) Team B waits patiently  for Team A to finish.   They paint the office.   Stock the beer fridge.  Help on sales calls, research a new technology, put together a presentation, read a book, go to a conference, etc.   And all the managers GASP at the underutilized capacity, but you as a smart agile manager know that you may indeed be optimizing the system by not trying to optimize individual teams.