Obstacles On The Path To Self-Management

Lennard Toma
Written by Lennard Toma February 08, 2023

Becoming a self-organized/self-managed organization can be fun. You experiment, you learn, you celebrate what works. And you are noticed by other companies, family and friends. You may even attract new colleagues and see the current ones thrive.

But not everything is rosy. There are quite a few hurdles. Hopefully, this article will help so that...

  1. You see them coming.
  2. You know you’re not the first to experience them.
  3. You are more likely to persist when frustrated.
“Models of change and self-organization can become the goal rather than the means. It's so exciting, you can lose track of why you wanted it. Remember it's a means to an end.”

Common Hurdles

When you take up the journey to become a self-managed organization, you will face more than a few problems and pitfalls—that’s just an unavoidable truth, but it’s part of the journey regardless. Based on my own experience and talking to different organizations trying the same stuff, the common hurdles tend to be:

The Model Death Stare

You start with a tool or model that gets you on the way. Things change in the organization. Despite doubts you persevere. You learn that some practices/models are like training wheels. At some point you have to get off. Don't overfocus on the model.

The Wrong Reasons

Doing things for wrong reasons is unlikely to work. An example is cutting costs by firing middle-management because your competitors did. People sense these things and won’t co-operate. Or you implement something that others are doing without a deep understanding of the mechanisms yourself. This is a formula for failure. Don't blame self-organization or self-management for your failures.

Return of the CEO

Sometimes the CEO or manager has trouble letting go when things don't go smoothly as before. This can undermine the process. It might even collapse if belief is eroded. Ricardo Semler said something like: “You have a gun with one bullet. If shot, you must start all over again with no way to fire another.” CEOs/managers need to be coached not to step in from their former place of authority. But they can step in as peers, remembering their words will count because of their place in the hierarchy.

Un-Leading

Sometimes leaders step too far back. They believe 'the team' has to do ‘it’ and forget they are part of the team. Stepping back creates distance. It suggests “I'm different from you, on another level”. And this while you are trying to close the gap. If you are the most knowledgeable person on a subject, it's imperative you share your insights.

Being Too Equal

Another problem is mistaking self-organization or self-management for a leaderless organization. This can mean some important things are not addressed, like explaining the vision or goals because we are all equal now. No, we are not. Some are more equal than others. Some have more leadership talent. Some are good at making decisions. Just be sure to involve others.

The Nay-Sayers

Some people, internal and external, won't get what you are trying to do. They might suggest you don’t proceed, or express skepticism. These can include friends, family, customers or suppliers. It may be hard to explain what you are doing.

It's even harder for colleagues who didn’t initiate the change to self-organization. They need things explained, too. Some will still resist. But it’s not wise to waste too much energy. Putting energy into persuasion might even spread negativity. Focus on the ambassadors. The sceptics will eventually join in, or leave.

Regression to the Mean

During these steps, remember you're still in current organizational norms, and an outlier. You may feel the pull to regress to the 'normal' again. The pull comes from colleagues, the outside world and even yourself. Resist. And repeat why you are doing what you are doing. It all takes time to settle.

The Misfits

You'll have (or hire) people not suited for these practices. You hope they will come along. Some won't. Don't be afraid to say goodbye, even if they are skilled and capable. When structures change, cultures change. If they no longer fit, it's not helping.

Failing to Understand

Some will misinterpret how self-organizing practices work. They may go too far, or not far enough. It takes time for new mindsets to settle. You can't explain something just once and hope it sticks. Repeat, repeat, and coach along the way.

Too Many Damn Opinions

More opinions may emerge as decisions become distributed, Or, in a consent decision process, some are overwhelmed by the choices and avoid participation. Maybe they fear stepping on other people’s toes. It helps to coach on ideas like 'good enough for now’, ‘safe enough to try' and the fact that ‘you can't please all’.

Washing the Dishes

Responsibility can become diffused for common, non-defined tasks. Take a stupid example like washing the dishes. These still need to be done. Some natural leaders may take responsibility initially. Unless others follow this example, they might say “It's someone else's turn now”. What if no one responds? Someone must take the initiative.

Forgetting the Core Business

Later in the process, you’ll get attention from the outside world. And some of those who launched the changes think of teaching others how to do the same. This can launch a side business of preaching the gospel of self-organization. This is awesome. But taken too far, it can impede the core business focus. And when markets change, the backbone of your business might be neglected. Don't ignore the core business.

The Change Addiction

Models of change and self-organization can become the goal rather than the means. It's so exciting, you can lose track of why you wanted it. Remember it's a means to an end. If you forget the real goal, people will fall off the wagon because they don't like change for change’s sake.

This list is not exhaustive. There must be other common problems out there. If you share them, we can all learn. For now, the above are some to keep in mind. I hope they help.

Don't let these challenges discourage you from moving your organization forward.

You can overcome them too.

Many others have!

Written by Lennard Toma
Lennard Toma
Organizational Psychologist and allround experimental nutty guy. Love pushing some boundaries and do a lot of different things.
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