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: http://www.management30.com/ashby/
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.