I recently read an article that had my stomach churn. A "Project Management Professional" said that he does not believe "self-managing" teams are possible. They "need to be managed at some level." - This just reeks of old school Management 2.0 techniques and management theory.

Are there any substantive articles, research, or white papers that show that teams and individuals desire to have "mastery, autonomy, and flow?" (Taken from Dan Pink's book Drive)

We can share personal experiences... but it would be nice to see some hard 'evidence' per se...

5 Answers 5


I believe we may have functional* teams without managers, but never without management.

A non-managed team will hardly deliver anything acceptable.

I think we need to define what's self management and what are the minimal tasks someone needs to do to be considered a manager. Getting deep on this discussion, we also need to define what we consider as a project.

For medium/large projects, a dev lead might not have the necessary knowledge to perform all business related tasks, specially the ones where there are values involved.

For small and well defined projects, however, I do believe it's possible. Let's think someone hires two developers to build a website. The client provides the the info required (layout, content, blablabla) and agrees with them the costs.

A manager wouldn't be required to be kept on developer's shoulders checking their progress, as long as the developers have the required maturity to keep their clients aware of the progress. Notice that keeping the clients aware of the progress is a managerial task... so we're now back to my opinion: we have here a self-managed project, without a manager properly 'entitled' as you said.

Real cases? I believe that at least some of the home-made-website-development-companies we have around are good cases for this, at least when they're starting up.


* Functional Team as a team that really delivers something.

  • Case in point: Valve That company has no managers at all and still they are able to make millions and create about a game a year. True the people are working on things they like and the results may vary on projects that are not self motivated. But even Valve has not formal managers, but some people get the task to do project management ad hock; these people are often referred to suckers. (Because management is boring and they have no additional authority.)
    – rioki
    Apr 4, 2013 at 9:42
  • Interesting, @rioki! I picked one (out of many) articles talking about this... just for reference: businessweek.com/articles/2012-04-27/…
    – Tiago Cardoso
    Apr 8, 2013 at 9:55

You may like Jurgen Apello's "Management 3.0". One of the chapters focuses on empowering teams. He describes seven levels of empowerment - from delegation, to advising a team, to being part of it, to commanding the team - and points out that different decisions are often made on different levels. He has some exercises that managers can do to find out in what ways the team are empowered, and helps us easily identify places in which they could be more empowered.

However, he also points out places in which it would be unusual for a team to make the decisions, and does support the idea that there are some aspects of team interaction which should be managed. For example, teams will not normally get to decide on the project vision, the budget, deadline, and may not be able to decide on language, technology choice, etc. He makes a compelling and intelligent argument, and links to lots of research and other work throughout.


I think when a manager/leader adopts a specific theory or school of though on management has much to do with his/her personality as well as the type of work, people, and environment over which (s)he is managing. To discount this person's opinion as "old school" is not likely fair.

While it is true that, through study, there is evidence that whittles away at older theories, e.g., scientific management theory, bureaucratic management theory, they do not entirely go away or pieces of the theory prevail and survive over time.

I think it is very smart to understand these older theories, how they were developed, what the working environment was like, if you want to understand how contemporary theories have evolved. Contingency theory is just that: this management type is true if this work environment is true.


A couple of responses to your question (and I'll probably take some heat for this) -

First - You use the PMP in an almost sarcastic way, as if to say that a PMP just doesn't get it. I know a substantial amount of PMP's that are not only Agile/Scrum practitioners, but also trainers. Just because one has a PMP doesn't mean they all think alike.

Second - personal opinion only: while I'm not big supporter of self-managed teams, I do think they're possible - within the team (ie: doing the work). But all teams, self-managed or not, need management of some type on a larger scale (on an organizational level). Once directed to complete a task, then they can self-manage. But until then...

Third - the question of scale plays a part. A small team can be self-managed. But the larger the team becomes, the less viable self-management is. And most businesses don't operate on a small-team basis. This may be in part where your colleagues view was coming from.

Last - Re: "Mastery, autonomy, flow" - I think this is something that most, individuals as well as teams, want. You don't even really need the studies or articles to believe that. And to a point that freedom should be allowed. But not always. To assume that all teams, or even most, are in a better position to self-manage their work, or that not believing in it is "old-school" is as naive as believing that self-managed teams are not possible at all.


As this article http://www.wrike.com/blog/07/18/2012/Is-Your-Team-Self-Organizing clarifies, self-organizing teams are not loose cannons, but flexible, responsive teams within the organizational framework. In this case, managers just check in occasionally, rather than check up all the time. After all, it’s all about encouraging self-actualization of the team members.

Obviously, this method has its pros and cons. The article refers to the research that shows that this type of team responds more easily to challenges and new situations, taking a flexible approach, which often results in innovative solutions. I also liked the idea of “collective wisdom” that accumulates in the properly selected team. But, naturally, this method has its limits. As the author points out, it works better for small and well-selected teams.

Fairly enough, the article gives some examples of both successful and failed efforts to implement self-organization. But if you still want to give it a try, I suggest you also check out this http://www.agileweboperations.com/how-to-make-a-team-self-organizing article to know what steps to take.

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