Mark van Meurs Change Agent passionate about uncovering better ways to organize companies around committed and enthusiastic people.

The Self-Organizing Leadership Paradox

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The Self-Organizing Leadership Paradox

Self-organizing teams is a trend in the professional world for some time. An increasing amount of organizations are turning to self-organizing teams to increase ownership, teamwork and collaboration. For those who don’t know, self-organizing teams are teams that have a mandate to organize themselves in the best way they see fit. They can figure out how to communicate, collaborate and deliver results. Without management interference; they manage themselves.

The typical structure for these teams is the “no leader”-approach. In this approach teams adopt a democratic practice. These teams move forward, only when all members agrees on the path to take. For most teams this works very well. But, this also led to a common misconception. Because this practice works so well, some assume the hive mind should be in the lead all the time. That teams should always decide on everything together and by themselves. That there is no room for leaders, inside and outside of the team.

Yet, leaders are all around us. Presidents run countries. Silverback gorillas guide their troops. And influencers on social media inspire their followers. Some leaders we elect. Some rise to power by violence. And others we follow by choice. All social structures need leaders. Organizations are a social structure and so are teams. Self-organizing teams are no exception.

Before we continue, lets make sure we are talking about the same thing. Management is often confused with leadership, but these are not the same. Management is about making sure day-to-day operations are running smooth. Leadership is about inspiring and gathering people around ideas. Both are necessary in organizations and teams, and some leaders are also managers, but don‘t mistake that for it being the same.

This mix-up of leading and managing, and the notion that the collective intelligence of teams should be leading, has a lulling effect on many. Team members no longer stand up and take the lead when they could, assuming the collective will work it out. At the same time, it has a crippling effect on managers. Out of fear of interfering with a team’s autonomy, they are reluctant to share their vision and opinions.

This is a dangerous development. Collaboration and deliberation are necessary for teams to make collective decisions as well as for individuals to learn and grow. The hive mind is very important in teams, but won’t work without leadership. Self-organizing teams need enough autonomy, but not too much. Enough for team members to feel engaged, responsible and accountable for their own contributions, but not so much that they are overwhelmed and unable to deliver results. Self-organizing teams need clear boundaries within which they are autonomous.

Within these boundaries, team members have to take the helm now and then. If no one takes the lead, teams will at some point come to a standstill. But, there needs to be a balance. There needs to be room for other team members to contribute, make mistakes and learn all the while making sure the team progresses and avoids big screw-ups. Self-organizing teams are supposed to work everything out as a collective. But, it can not do that without individual team members taking the lead. Who need to respect the opportunities for other team members as well.

For managers outside of the team, the trick is to balance autonomy with alignment. Henrik Kniberg created the following four quadrants to illustrate this:

Four different quadrants for high and low alignment and high and low autonomy

Organizations with self-organizing teams can not let go of alignment. Moreover, it is a requirement to allow autonomy. It is up to management to share their vision and lead the troops. But here’s the kicker, it needs to happen on the right level. Don’t tell a team what it is they need to do or how to do it. Inspire them. Make sure they understand the challenge at hand. Allow them to understand the why of their assignment and let them work it out from there.

If you look at the picture above, in the "Innovative"-quadrant, you see a leader sharing the challenge, not the solution. In this example, this is the right level. The team consists of skilled engineers that can be trusted to solve the problem of crossing a river. The river problem could be a sub-problem of a much bigger vision, though: "we need a connection over land between New York and San Francisco". Would the manager in this example have shared the grand vision instead, without the river problem, the team would have been crippled. There is no way this team of four engineers, specialized in crossing fast moving water, could pull that off. By choosing the right level, managers inspire and motivate teams. Too high, and teams don’t know what to do. Too low, and they will lose motivation because of micromanagement.

There is a place for leadership in and around self-organizing teams. But, the challenge is to show direction on the right level while respecting the boundaries of the autonomy of team members and teams.

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