How to Create a Self-Managing Organisation: The Teams

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar September 11, 2016

Deciding that everything needs to change is one thing, but figuring out how to make it happen is an even bigger challenge. How do you create a self-steering organisation?

What does it mean for your colleagues, their positions and their daily activities? And how do you actually facilitate self-management? What is the first step that needs to be taken? Self-management is something you cannot impose but that needs to develop.

Once you have got clear how you want it on paper, the phase of putting it into practice follows. An important guiding principle in this process for me is the vision of Lean & Agile expert Sigi Kaltenecker. He sees leadership as a team sport in which team members including 'managers' are genuinely connected and intensively communicate with each other and take decisions together.

Leadership as a team sport

In order to illustrate his story, Kaltenecker uses the analogy of a football team. In a football team, every player has a role and specific talents, but they are jointly responsible for the result and also dependent on each other to achieve it. This fits in perfectly with wanting to limit 'pass the parcel’ behaviour and, just as importantly: removing the hierarchy within Computest. And the great thing is that any team member can score the winning goal, which means everyone's attitude to the game is already quite different.

Intensive operation

One of the first steps we took was to form a multidisciplinary pilot team. This gave us the opportunity to gain experience in a cautious way without turning the organisation upside down. After that we quickly moved on to dividing the entire organisation into teams. This is a rather intensive operation because you are not only removing existing structures; you are also scrapping all the traditional roles and creating new ones. An exciting period. We helped all the teams get to know each other properly straight away by getting them to travel together in a minibus for this year's study trip and booking hotel rooms close to each other. That way, you break the ice in a slightly more natural way and get to know each other informally first. In terms of timing, this also came at just the right moment as our company had just gained an additional 30 colleagues with the acquisition of Pine four months before.

Because you can't enforce self-management and in order to make the transition proceed smoothly, I decided to appoint team 'Captains'. These individuals are not managers, but they have a supporting role and facilitate the team to do their work as well as possible. Together with the rest of the team, the Captains watch over the team's results. In order to ensure that innovation and our long-term vision are guaranteed, we appointed Coaches. Coaches are not part of the teams but are responsible for the long-term vision in their discipline and can inspire or coach team members as required. For example: our former Sales Manager is now our Sales Coach.

Don't rush in

Of course we didn't rush into this process. Just deciding on the composition of the teams, communicating that and reassuring people (frequently asked question: do I now have two managers, the Captain and the Coach?) was quite a task. Apart from that, not everything can be accommodated within a team (assuming that every team is a copy of the others in terms of roles). Activities such as inventory management, the administration of our holding company, recruitment and management of our IT systems were left over. For now, we have chosen to divide them among the teams. Time will tell how well this works.

One of the things we are finding is that in some areas, the role of the Captains and Coaches is still performed quite 'traditionally'. You can stick the 'self-managing' label onto a team, but that doesn't make them self-managing overnight. It is a process in which everyone is still finding their way to begin with. For instance, in practice I observe that many employees still see the Captains as Managers/Team Leaders in the way they used to in the old structure. And in this initial phase it is also clear that in some areas management is absolutely still needed. It is interesting to see that this varies significantly from one team to the next.

Another challenge that we came up against pretty quickly is about 'Scrum'. Because we decided that the teams should work according to the 'Scrum' methodology, all our staff suddenly had stand-up meetings with their new teams every day. In these meetings, they discuss in no more than 15 minutes what tasks everyone wants to complete that day, what the impediments are and whether help is needed from other members of the team. That was initially very difficult because in this transition period, a lot of work was still being done outside the teams. Some teams were also lacking a common goal and that, of course, is the key to success.

Initial results of the self-steering organisation

The first positive results I can already see from working in these teams are that people from different disciplines are addressing each other about their responsibilities directly. Communication no longer takes place through a manager, because there simply no longer are any. So in place of the hierarchy you take away, you get more immediacy and transparency in return. Some people are very obviously taking on new roles and showing initiative. That was not expected of people in their old roles, so it happened a lot less. I am curious to see what else this will lead to.

Hartger Ruijs is founder and CEO of Computest Group BV. Computest specializes in performance and security testing for (online) applications. Hartger is regularly posting on Computest's transition towards a self-steering organization. These posts will also be published on Corporate Rebels' blog to provide followers insights into the ongoing transition.

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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