Saturday, October 15, 2011

Self-Managing Teams, Adaptability and Innovation

Technological advancements and the global economy has made innovation and adaptability a critical component for sustainability. Thus we need to push our conventional management model into antiquity and move towards the more dynamic model of self-managing teams.

As we all know, Agile promotes the concept of self-managing teams. This concept has been gaining steam recently but has actually been around for quite some time. W.L. Gore, for example, has been organized around self-managing teams since 1958.

Let’s start with what we have today and how we got here.

Top-down leadership is the prevalent model in most organizations and is ingrained in most of our thinking and behaviors. The current autocratic nature of management was introduced during the industrial revolution. Its ability to churn out vast quantities of manufactured goods is undeniable. Its primary limitation in today’s business climate is that it requires that a select few contain the wisdom, vision, and authority - and the masses execute the plan. This is great for repetitive tasks but less so for innovation and adaptability.

Just as it is irrational to think that we can plan the development of software up front and rigidly adhere to and execute the plan – as if change isn’t going to happen - so too is it delusional to think that adaptability and innovation is borne out of autocracies and bureaucracies.

Innovations are not planned or commanded into existence. Instead, innovations are developed serendipitously. We search for one thing and unexpectedly find another. We need to structure our organizations in a way that promotes the manifestation of the unforeseen.

As with all things, we must make compromises when changing from one management model to another. As Gary Hamel so aptly puts it in his book The Future of Management:

You can build a company that is virtually error and mistake free. You can build a company that is highly adaptable. But you can’t do both. In this sense, perfection is the enemy of progress

If I sound like an anarchist who thinks there’s no room for authority, I assure you I am far from it. Leadership is always needed and always sought out. I believe in authority too. I just think that it is ineffectively distributed in the conventional management model.

The requirements for managers in the contemporary world in which we compete are:

  • Leading by pushing authority, accountability, and reward to small front line teams.
  • Leading by creating an environment that allows for experimentation, collaboration, and not only self-managing but self-organizing teams.

These steps will encourage creativity, passion, and a sense of community and mission – all of which are ingredients for a dynamic, adaptable and innovative workplace. A workplace built to compete in the 21st century.

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