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Implementing Self-Management: Here's How It's Done

Pim de Morree
Written by Pim de Morree September 07, 2019

The self-management hype is in full swing. Many companies talk about it and some are brave enough to try it. But there are only a few that are actually practicing it.

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Over 3 years of travel around the world, we've visited these pioneers. The big question: what can we learn from their approaches? And how can the companies that are just talking about it turn all that fancy talk into action?

In this post, we share a variety of approaches to implementing self-management. Approaches that actually worked.

How to implement self-management?

The often-encountered problem is that many have no clue how to do this. They often make wrong decisions at the start. For example, they expect that if you change the titles of managers to coaches, the rest will automatically follow. Or the entire middle management is fired without having teams trained on what self-management is and how it works.

So how does it actually work?

Well, if you're looking for the silver bullet, stop looking. It's not there. Don't listen to consultants out there who might try to convince you otherwise. If it would be that simple, many more organizations would already be practicing it today.

The self-management hype is in full swing. Many companies talk about it and some are brave enough to try it. But there are only a few that are actually practicing it.
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Instead of providing you with a fake and misleading one-size-fits-all solution, we want to inspire you with what others have done. To learn from the pioneers that have already walked down the path. Here are some of the ones we've researched.

1. Buurtzorg

One of the contemporary poster boys of self-management is the home-care nursing organization Buurtzorg. The organization was founded in 2006 and currently employs over 15,000 nurses and care workers. Surprisingly, there's not a single manager in the organization, and there are no more than 50 people in the headquarters.

So, how did they create this? Well, it all started when founder and CEO Jos de Blok started Buurtzorg with a team of 4 nurses. When the organization was still small, they had an opportunity to design it fully to their own needs. Once they started to grow, they stayed true to their approach.

Teams that grow bigger than twelve people split into two smaller teams. Alternatively, new teams can be added to the network by proactive nurses who decide to set up a new Buurtzorg team. Neither the leadership team nor the headquarters decides where new teams will be set up. It's all based on growth from within the teams or new entrepreneurial nurses who join the organization.

The way Buurtzorg grows resembles the way organisms grow. Teams split just like cells and continue to grow until they have reached the size to split again. It's a great way for Buurtzorg to grow very quickly and organically.

2. Federal Office of Social Affairs

Buurtzorg didn't have a history of command and control to get rid of. They had no thick layers of hierarchy to destroy. From the start, they had the opportunity to organize everything around their central belief: autonomous nurses provide better healthcare.

However, a lot of existing organizations don't have that option. They have to find a way to transform their current organization - with all the history and legacies that come with it. Obviously, that requires a different approach.

For inspiration, let's take a look at another pioneering organization we've researched: the Belgian Federal Office of Social Affairs. This government department, based in Brussels, has gone down the path of self-management in recent years. In short, here's how they approached it.

Phase 1: Organization design

In 2013, the first step was to start a project with their most important stakeholders: people with disabilities, their co-workers and local partners. The aim was to figure out how to deliver better service.

The outcome of the organization design phase was a new structure. The department would be divided into multidisciplinary teams that would focus on one specific area with the required expertise. These teams would handle all the work in their region from A to Z. Basic team roles and competencies were defined. The team size was to be between 12 and 15 co-workers.

Phase 2: Preparation

In 2014, the transformation announcement was made. From that moment it was clear that 1.5 years later (January 2016) the teams would start working in this new structure. During the 1.5 years, several crucial preparation activities were completed.

  • Co-workers chose the teams they wanted to work in. They could choose, but it was made clear that the team should be able to execute all its tasks from A to Z.
  • The teams were coached on vision and values to ensure they were all aligned. If they couldn't align, people could move to other teams.
  • Teams met regularly to ensure the members, roles, and team dynamics were all ready for the change that was about to happen.

Two full-time co-workers were available for coaching and support. Every team had 3 or 4 fixed meetings with these coaches over 1.5 years.

Phase 3: Going live

As of April 2016, the teams started working in the new structure. Their preparation helped them get started in a positive way. Of course, not everything worked well from the start. So, they learned some valuable lessons after going live.

  • KPIs for team performance weren’t very clear. It was hard for the teams to assess their performance. Nowadays they have KPIs in place. Examples include throughput time for allowance requests, customer satisfaction numbers, number of complaints, etcetera.
  • They learned to connect similar roles. Meetings were set up to have people share information between teams. For example, the social workers from several regional teams started to meet regularly to share knowledge on their specific roles.
  • Not everyone dared to speak up in team meetings. Therefore, they coached some to speak up, and others to be more involving. Sometimes they even pushed people into conflict to help them learn how to address tough topics.

For a more detailed insight into their transformation, check out this blog post.

3. 50+ companies around Bilbao

And then there's the inspirational story of a group of companies in the Basque Country.

With the support of transformation company K2K Emocionando, more than fifty companies have moved to self-management in the past 15 years. Here's what their radical approach looks like.

Phase 1: CEO and owners all-in

Before the transformation process starts, they make sure the owners of the company are willing to go all-in in this new direction. They require a 100% buy-in from the owners of the organization and require them to commit to the change process. Plus, the CEO must be fully committed. In fact, he or she must agree that if they stand in the way of a successful transformation (at any point in time), he or she can be replaced.

Phase 2: Employees vote for change

They shut down operations for two days. All staff get the chance to visit a company that has already transformed. They get to experience what it's like to work in a self-managed way. Afterwards, employees vote anonymously: in favor or against the transformation. Less than 80% of votes in favor? No transformation. More than 80% in favor? Time to get started.

Phase 3: Feelings, dreams, fears

All staff will be interviewed. All feelings, dreams, and fears will be collected to get a good understanding of the organization.

Phase 4: Create radical transparency

People are taught how the business truly works. After initial finance training, all kinds of information will be made transparent. From company financials to team commitments, and from team results to salary levels. Now, team performance and company performance are published regularly.

Phase 5: Stake in the outcome

The next important step is the abolition of paid overtime. When overtime is paid (and thus rewarded), employees have an incentive to work as many hours as possible. When a successful outcome is rewarded, employees will focus on being as efficient as possible.

That's why they spread 30% of the additional profits among all workers. All of a sudden, individual interests are aligned with those of the organization.

Phase 6: Design a network of teams

Then they redesign the traditional organization into a network of teams. They organize teams around products, services, regions, clients, or processes. This is of course dependent on the type of organization and the environment it operates in.

From the moment the network of teams is installed, the teams become self-managing. Among other things, this means they select their own team leaders every 6 months. The team leaders coordinate activities with other teams.

Phase 7: Focus on commitments

They implement weekly commitment meetings to discuss new commitments and to create alignment between the teams.

Phase 8: Get rid of control mechanisms

The next step is getting rid of control mechanisms. The time clock is one of the first to disappear, and all other kinds of tracking tools and approval forms are abolished.

For a more detailed overview of K2K's radical approach, check out this earlier blog post.

If you're looking for the silver bullet, stop looking. It's not there. Don't listen to consultants out there that might try to convince you otherwise. If it would be that simple, many more organizations would already be...
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4. Municipality Hollands Kroon

Another example of an organization that has successfully transformed into self-management is the Dutch municipality of Hollands Kroon. This organization employs around 300 employees and - just like the other examples - has approached the transformation in its own way. Here's what it looked like.

Phase 1: Blueprint

The first step was to build a blueprint of the current way of working. All processes and their connections were mapped as best as they could. This involved every employee, to make sure results were accurate. These were collected via an online survey and interviews.

It should not come as a surprise that this revealed many processes and methods that were in desperate need of improvement.

Phase 2: Recommendations

After this detailed analysis, a project group was formed. They drafted a report that featured the blueprint (above), input from employees, and a list of practices that could improve the organization. It gave management a detailed view of all current tasks and processes.

But more importantly, it suggested concrete steps to a future organization—all of which were based on a healthy dose of common sense. For example, it recommended which teams were needed to cover each task or process. It suggested how many people should be in each team. And it laid out the competencies needed by team members.

Phase 3: Profiling

Using these recommendations, the management team drafted a ‘team profile' for each task or process. These ‘profiles’ were the bare minimum. They only described the expertise needed in each new team, its key tasks, and the competencies required.

This is when they decided to abolish job descriptions. In the next step, employees applied to work in a function of their choice. The management team then built new teams based on candidate interest, capacity, and experience.

Phase 4: Kick-off

Then, each new ‘start-up’ team spent two days getting acquainted. They talked about their vision of success, and how they wanted to treat each other. They didn’t talk about task-related stuff.

This introductory period was used exclusively to discuss personal and team boundaries. They decided what they wanted to share with other members, and what they wanted to keep private. Do we eat together? Do we have a beer together? Do we share private problems? Do we laugh and cry together?

Phase 5: Road map

After this introduction period, management allowed the new teams three months to design their own road maps. Each map specified team goals, and their plans to track progress.

During one of our visits, the former Director of Operations of the municipality, Anja van der Horst, laughed when she recalled this part of the process. She explains: “When discussions and arguments [on the road maps] start, teams immediately get back to reality. They notice it’s not so easy to be a self-managing team. However, as long as you don’t interfere, they will surely figure it out themselves. These are valuable lessons in learning self-management".

The teams presented their road maps to the management team in two parts. The first covered the common, mandatory goals for every team to track and measure. The second was more focused—on the specific goals of each team. Now the basics were in place, it was time to start working.

In this post, we share a variety of approaches to implement self-management. Approaches that actually worked.
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Find your own way

While the above approaches are not the solution for you, they can definitely be used as sources of inspiration. Pick the most applicable elements, design your own approach, and get to work. It's the only way to move beyond the hyped-up, fancy talk on self-management.

It's time for more companies to stop talking and start doing!

Looking for more in-depth knowledge on self-management? Or do you need implementation support from the 'Revolt' team? Contact us at info@corporate-rebels.com.

Written by Pim de Morree
Pim de Morree
As co-founder of Corporate Rebels I focus on: researching, writing, speaking, and building our company.
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