Adopting New Ways Of Working: The Top 10 Tips

Written by SGLocky November 02, 2019

I have walked away from my desk with a racing heart. What on earth have I just done? Am I having a midlife crisis? Have I just committed career suicide?

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Time to check in with myself. Find a quiet space. Sit down. Deep, slow breaths.

Now, Stephen, how does it feel?

The truth is... it feels... wonderful. It feels liberating. It feels exciting. It feels right. It feels … what on earth is this feeling? That’s it!

I am feeling joyful.

I am feeling joyful at work. And it’s not even ten o’clock in the morning!

Declaring a change

Recently I wrote a blog (Declare A Change - Adventures in Self-Organizing Teams) that described my decision to experiment with self-management. Somewhat to my surprise, this blog travelled around the world gathering comments and acknowledgement as it went. It has led to debates about new ways of working, to speaking invitations and requests for coaching and consultancy. But I’m just a manager of a small team working in healthcare research in the UK. So what happened?

Many of the comments focussed on me being honest about how it feels to lead a change like this. And about how vulnerable it can make you feel. I think that resonated with people.

So this post deals with that. How to look after yourself and your colleagues as you transition to a new way of working. Here are my top ten tips.

Tip One - Educate Yourself

There are many wonderful resources available that discuss self-management and progressive organisations. Read the Corporate Rebels blogs, listen to the Leadermorphosis podcasts, read Reinventing Organisations, download the Happy Manifesto and follow all the links to see where they lead you. You are not the first person to take this step.

I spent a couple of months doing background research before I decided to make a change. I kept reading and listening until I felt I had the confidence to act.

Tip Two - Find Your Islands of Sanity

Lisa Gill pointed me in the direction of what Margaret Wheatley calls “Islands of Sanity”, people and places who share a similar mind-set. Progressive thinking in traditional organisations goes against at least 100 years of hierarchical machine-thinking. You are on this journey, full of excitement, but the people around you may not be. And they may not thank you for questioning everything they believe to be true. So make sure you have fellow travellers to turn to when the whole world seems to think you are crazy.

I reached out to experts for advice, joined online communities and talked to friends at length to clarify my thinking. I also used our internal Google platform to find people interested in new ways of working.

Tip Three - Look After Your Mental Health

In much of my reading this year I have been struck by how frequently I see references to meditation or mindfulness or yoga. It’s often between the lines, but many influential writers place personal importance on some kind of daily practice. Many progressive organisations encourage it in the workplace too. Don’t ignore this. I took deep breaths that first morning because I had returned to meditation while reflecting on the change I wanted to make. This will feel momentous for you personally, so take care on the journey. Don’t let the feelings become overwhelming.

I downloaded meditation apps, set reminders in my calendar and prioritised this in my life as much as possible. If I can’t meditate (I have four noisy kids) I run instead.

Tip Four - Take Care of Your People

When you are ready to go, don’t hesitate. Declare the change and step forward into a new way of being. Choose your moment and say what you want to say. Change what you want to change. Become who you want to become. Articulate it clearly and succinctly.

But remember, this will come as a surprise to your colleagues. They haven’t (yet) been reading, meditating, reflecting and growing. They will take time to adjust. Give them that time. Don’t push too hard. Take care of their feelings. That’s one of your most important jobs now.

I had long conversations with colleagues who didn’t initially enjoy the change, but I was careful not to rescue them from uncomfortable feelings, rather I tried to make it feel safe and encouraging to step forward and find new ways to work.

Tip Five - Embody the Change

If you are used to being the head of a hierarchy and you essentially give away your authority, you need to change your behaviour. This is tricky and subtle, but essential. It is helpful to articulate your values and emphasise those above targets or profit or whatever measures you use.

Think about how you carry yourself. Think about the language you use. Talk about your feelings allowing others to talk about theirs. Make sure you enable voices. Your responsibility now is to lead in a different way, to nurture and enable, not to direct and dictate.

I told my team I no longer considered myself a manager, rather as a team member with a special role. We banned the use of phrases like “boss”, “higher ups”, “those in charge” and acknowledged the experts whatever their grade. I sometimes get called “coach” now.

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Tip Six - Change the Way You Meet

You are probably used to chairing meetings. Or at least you are used to people deferring to your decisions. Experiment with different ways of meeting to ensure that the reflective or quieter members of your team can contribute. Liberating Structures is a good source of ideas for changing the way you talk and make decisions.

We divided up our work as equally and fairly as we could. We gave responsibility to pairs of people based on expertise, not salary grade. They are free to manage that workload, but report on progress to the rest of the team weekly.

Tip Seven - Make a Bold Change or Two

How do your team know that you mean what you say? That you are genuinely devolving power? That this isn’t a fad?

Do something quickly that signals a significant change. Open up the budgets. Remove yourself from a decision making position. Abandon your office if you have one.

I opened up our budgets and said that any member of staff could decide to spend any amount of money as long as the rest of the team agrees. This has led to fascinating changes in the way (for example) training is organised and distributed.

Tip Eight - Clarify Responsibility and Accountability

Successful self-management isn’t anarchy. If you remove top-down direction from decision making, you need to replace it with something else. Discuss this with your team. Ask them how they want to work. Be part of the discussion, but figure out a new way of working together.

We implemented an advice process. Anyone can invite the rest of the team to an advice session to check their direction. This has proved to be a really efficient way of solving problems together.

Tip Nine - Trust

Trust your colleagues to work well in new ways. Encourage them to trust one another. Trust that you are trying something with solid thinking behind it. Trust that it is okay to be trying something new. Trust that you’ll figure it out together. Trust your feelings. Trust that you can be truly honest and vulnerable and good people will support you.

I have found the best way to do this is to regularly use phrases like, “I trust you”, “I trust X”, “I trust that Y will do a good job”. But don’t use the phrase “trust me”; replace that with something like “tell me more about your thinking/feelings” and then listen, humbly.

Tip Ten - Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day, But Lay Some Bricks Everyday

You cannot transform an organisation of any size in a short period of time. You can’t take an off-the-shelf approach to this kind of change. Not everyone wants to work in a self-managed team. You’ll have to figure things out as you go. You’ll make mistakes often. You’ll fall back into old ways.

But then you’ll be honest and transparent about your errors. You will describe your feelings when things are not working. You’ll listen deeply to the views of your colleagues. You’ll coach people to a new understanding. Every day you will grow as a person. Every step you’ll improve as a team. And, together, you’ll enjoy the journey.

I am incredibly proud of the people I work with and delighted to see what they can do when they are recognised and supported to be the experts that they always were. I am privileged to be alongside them.

Adopting New Ways Of Working: The Top 10 Tips
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So, there you have it. My top ten thoughts on starting with self-management. It’s a fascinating, fun and rewarding thing to do. But it is also something that pulls at your emotions like no other way of working. So if you only remember one thing from this blog, remember this.

Deep breaths. Take deep, deep breaths. Everything is good. You will be fine. Good luck.

Do you have any additional tips to share? Or do you have any questions for Stephen? Drop them in the comments below.

Stephen Lock is a service and system improvement specialist and co-founder of Coffee Shop Consulting. He currently works in health research in the UK, but also has experience as a consultant, speaker & business coach in the IT and healthcare industries. You can find him on Twitter (@SGLocky) or LinkedIn.

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