What Are Self Managed Teams? A Guide to High-Performance

What are self managed teams? A self-managed team is a group of employees who take on the responsibilities of managing themselves, including planning, scheduling, assigning tasks, and making decisions with little to no direct supervision. These teams have autonomy and authority over their work, enabling them to self-organize and collaborate to achieve a common goal.

Self-managed teams represent a shift away from traditional hierarchical management structures, where managers make all the decisions and closely monitor employee work. Instead, the team acts as its own manager, taking ownership of decision-making, problem-solving, and continuous improvement. Team members use their collective skills and expertise to complete work instead of relying on an appointed leader.

Some key characteristics of self-managed teams include:

  • Shared leadership and accountability
  • Task interdependence
  • Self-evaluation and monitoring of performance
  • Authority over issues like scheduling and work methods
  • Open communication and collaboration

In summary, a self-managed team is a group of employees who take collective responsibility for managing their day-to-day work and outcomes. This decentralized approach aims to leverage employee talents, empower teams, and enhance productivity.

Characteristics of Self-Managed Teams

Self managed team shaking hands.

Self-managed teams are characterized by a high degree of autonomy, responsibility, accountability, and cross-training. Unlike traditional hierarchical teams, self-managed teams take ownership of the work process from start to finish.

Team members have the freedom to structure their own workflows, assign tasks, and make decisions without manager approval. There is shared leadership, with each member bringing unique skills and taking on responsibilities as needed. Team members are cross-trained so they can fill in for one another, enhancing flexibility.

With increased autonomy comes increased accountability. Self-managed teams are collectively responsible for their performance and outcomes. Rather than looking to an external manager, the team manages itself and makes sure work gets done to meet goals and standards.

This shift in responsibility fosters a great sense of ownership and engagement among team members. They feel invested in the success of the team and are intrinsically motivated to do their best work.

Benefits of Self-Managed Teams

Self-managed teams can provide several benefits to organizations and employees. Some of the key benefits include:

  • Increased productivity and efficiency – By giving teams more autonomy and control over their work, self-managed teams are often able to improve productivity and efficiency. Team members can organize their work in the way that makes the most sense for their team’s goals and needs, without waiting for manager approval.
  • Greater engagement and motivation – Self-managed teams tend to have higher levels of engagement and intrinsic motivation. Team members feel more ownership over their work when they are empowered to make decisions. This can increase job satisfaction and commitment to team success.
  • Enhanced flexibility and responsiveness – Self-managed teams are more agile and able to quickly respond to changing priorities or customer needs. They don’t need to wait for top-down decisions from management. This gives them the flexibility to pivot as needed.
  • More learning and skill development – Team members in self-managed teams build skills in communication, project management, decision-making, and conflict resolution through the process of working collaboratively without hierarchical leadership. They learn from their collective experiences.

Challenges of Implementing Self-Managed Teams

team, team work, group

Implementing self-managed teams can be challenging for many organizations. Some of the key challenges include:

  • Letting go of control: Managers often struggle with relinquishing control and allowing the team to manage itself. It requires a shift in mindset for managers to transition from directing tasks to coaching and supporting the team.
  • Lack of leadership experience: Self-managed teams require team members to step up into leadership roles. However, many employees are not experienced with leadership responsibilities such as delegating tasks, managing conflicts, and motivating others. Without proper training, this can lead to poor team dynamics.
  • Resistance to change: Transitioning to self-managed teams represents a significant change for many organizations. Some employees may resist the change and prefer to keep the old hierarchical structure. Overcoming resistance requires clear communication about the rationale for change.

Implementing self-direction is a process. With proper training, support, and cultural alignment, organizations can overcome these challenges. But managers and team members alike need patience as they learn new ways of working.

Keys to Successful Self-Managed Teams

For self-managed teams to be effective, they need the right conditions and support to thrive. Here are some of the most important keys to creating successful self-managed teams:

  • Clear goals and objectives – The team needs to have a clear understanding of its purpose, responsibilities, and metrics for success. Goals should align with overall organizational objectives. Clarity of goals helps provide direction and focus for the team.
  • Training – Team members need training in group processes, communication, problem-solving, conflict resolution, and other critical skills. They may also need technical training related to their roles. Ongoing coaching can also help support teams.
  • Open communication – Team members should feel comfortable expressing ideas or concerns openly. There should be transparency about decisions and performance. Frequent communication builds trust and alignment.
  • Trust – Team members need to feel trusted to handle responsibilities on their own. Leaders show trust by giving autonomy and empowering teams to self-manage. Psychological safety allows people to take risks and be vulnerable.
  • Clear roles – Each member needs to understand their role and responsibilities. Complementary skills should be represented across the team. Role clarity enables members to hold each other accountable.

With the right conditions, a self-managed team can leverage the diverse skills of its members, make decisions quickly, and take ownership of results. However, it takes intention and effort to build in these enabling factors.

When Are Self-Managed Teams Effective?

Self-managed teams are most effective in certain situations:

Stable Environments

Self-managed teams thrive in relatively stable business environments. If constant change is the norm, it can be difficult for teams to plan and make decisions without strong top-down leadership. Teams function better when they have clarity on business goals, resources, and constraints.

Skilled Team Members

Team members need the right mix of technical skills, problem-solving abilities, and soft skills like communication and collaboration. Without balanced competencies, the team can struggle with workload, interpersonal issues, or making sound decisions. Self-management requires team members to be mature, responsible, and have some management skills.

Complex Tasks or Projects

Simple, routine tasks are less suited to self-managed teams. The approach makes more sense for complex projects requiring creativity, problem-solving, and collaboration. The autonomy helps teams tap into diverse skill sets to develop innovative solutions. Research shows teams are more responsive and adaptive than traditional hierarchies on ambiguous, non-routine tasks.

When Hierarchy Impedes Performance

Sometimes traditional top-down management can impede performance. Self-managed teams remove bureaucratic obstacles that slow work and hinder communication. They empower those closest to the work to make timely decisions. Self-management works best when hierarchy gets in the way of productivity and innovation.

Structuring Self-Managed Teams

Self-managed teams can take on different structures depending on the needs of the organization. Some key considerations when structuring a self-managed team include:

  • Virtual vs co-located – Self-managed teams can be comprised of members working remotely (virtual) or together in a shared office space (co-located). Virtual teams require additional coordination through technology but allow for more flexible working arrangements. Co-located teams benefit from more in-person collaboration.
  • Team size – The ideal size for a self-managed team is typically 5-15 people. Smaller teams of 5-7 allow for more agility while larger teams of 10-15 bring more diverse skill sets. However, teams with over 15-20 members tend to become less productive.
  • Meetings – Self-managed teams require less management oversight but need coordination through regular team meetings. Short daily standups and weekly progress meetings help align tasks.
  • Workflows – Documented workflows detailing team processes and responsibilities provide clarity for self-managed teams. Using collaboration tools to track workflows and progress is essential.
  • Cross-functional roles – Self-managed teams often have members fill cross-functional roles beyond their core skillset. This empowers teams to self-organize and reduces dependencies.

Striking the right balance of structure while maintaining team autonomy is key for self-managed teams to thrive. Adjusting team workflows and communication cadences allows the team to continuously improve.

Developing Self-Managed Team Skills

teamwork, cooperation, brainstorming

For a self-managed team to be successful, team members need to develop key skills like decision-making, conflict resolution, time management, and collaboration. Decision-making can be challenging without a designated leader, so teams need to agree on a process for making decisions democratically and efficiently. Team members should practice resolving conflicts constructively through open communication, compromise, and focusing on shared goals.

Time management is also critical so that work gets completed on schedule without micromanagement. Team members can use tools like shared calendars and deadlines to stay organized. Finally, collaboration skills like active listening, providing feedback, and working flexibly are essential. With practice working cooperatively, self-managed teams can achieve strong results.

Fostering these skills within the team takes time and conscious effort. Managers can provide training on topics like project management, goal setting, and team dynamics. Peer mentoring and coaching within the team also help reinforce skills. Rotating roles give members experience with different responsibilities. With investment in their development, self-managed teams gain the competencies to thrive independently and maximize their performance.

Transitioning to Self-Managed Teams

Transitioning to self-managed teams can be challenging, but the potential rewards in terms of productivity, innovation, and employee engagement make it worthwhile for many organizations. Companies should approach the transition carefully with a pilot program, training, executive support, and an understanding that culture change takes time.

A successful transition starts with selecting a pilot team or two to test the self-managed structure. The pilot program allows the company to work out issues on a small scale before rolling out more broadly. Teams volunteer for the pilot because self-management requires willingness and buy-in from team members. During the pilot, teams receive extensive training on skills like conflict resolution, decision-making, and team processes. Ongoing coaching helps ingrain new behaviors. After 3-6 months, the organization assesses the pilot and makes changes before expanding self-managed teams.

Executive and middle management support is crucial when shifting to self-managed teams. Leaders must embrace empowering employees rather than controlling them. This cultural change takes time. Management learns to coach rather than command. They provide context and resources so teams can make decisions. But they give teams autonomy on how work gets done. Leadership training helps managers adapt to new roles of supporting self-managed teams.

With careful implementation and cultural evolution, self-managed teams can thrive. The pilot program and phased rollout allow issues to be addressed while building organizational capabilities. With training, support, and patience, companies can unlock the potential of empowered teams. The benefits of innovation, engagement, productivity, and agility make the journey worthwhile.

The Future of Self-Managed Teams

Self-managed teams are becoming increasingly prevalent as organizations recognize their benefits for productivity, engagement, and innovation. Though self-management is not suitable for every context, more companies are experimenting with hybrid models that blend elements of traditional hierarchy with self-direction.

Advances in technology are also enabling new forms of self-management. Tools for remote collaboration, task management, and team communication allow groups to self-organize even when not co-located. Artificial intelligence can provide insights to help teams improve dynamics and effectiveness. More sophisticated people analytics aids in composing complementary teams.

The future is likely to see a proliferation of self-direction in roles requiring creativity, problem-solving, and collaboration. Rather than top-down control, organizations may transition to guiding principles and guardrails that empower teams to manage themselves. Work will become less about following instructions and more about taking initiative and ownership. As millennials and Gen Z, who highly value autonomy, become a larger portion of the workforce, demand for self-management will only increase.