Self-organizing teams is a trend in the professional world for some time. An increasing amount of organizations are turning to self-organizing teams to increase ownership, teamwork and collaboration.
The typical structure (what many envision when talking about self-organizing) for these teams is the “no leader”-approach. In this approach, teams adopt a democratic practice. These teams move forward, only when all members agree on the path to take. For most teams, this works very well. But, this also led to a common misconception. Because this practice works so well, some assume the hive mind should be in the lead all the time. That teams should always decide on everything together and by themselves. That there is no room for leaders, inside and outside of the team.
Yet, leaders are all around us. Presidents run countries. Silverback gorillas guide their troops. And influencers on social media inspire their followers. Some leaders we elect. Some rise to power by violence. And others we follow by choice. All social structures need leaders. Organizations are a social structure and so are teams. Self-organizing teams are no exception. The leadership role might over time transition from one person to another or might be different based on the topics at hand, but there will always be an informal leader in self-organizing teams. If not, the team will come to a grinding halt.
Before we continue, let's make sure we are talking about the same thing. Management is often confused with leadership, but these are not the same. Management is about making sure day-to-day operations are running smoothly. Leadership is about inspiring and gathering people around ideas. Both are necessary for organizations and teams, and some leaders are also managers but don‘t mistake that for it being the same.
This mix-up of leading and managing, and the notion that the collective intelligence of teams should be leading, has a lulling effect on many. Team members no longer stand up and take the lead when they could, assuming the collective should work it out; that there is no room for leadership. At the same time, it has a crippling effect on managers outside of the team. Out of fear of interfering with a team’s autonomy and its self-organizing capabilities, they are reluctant to share their vision and opinions.
This is a dangerous development. Collaboration and deliberation are necessary for teams to make collective decisions as well as for individuals to learn and grow. The hive mind is very important in teams but just won’t work without leadership inside and outside of the team. Even more so when maturity-levels of individual team members vary. Self-organizing teams need enough autonomy, but not too much. Enough for team members to feel engaged, responsible, and accountable for their own contributions, but not so much that they are overwhelmed and unable to deliver results. Self-organizing teams need clear boundaries within which they are autonomous.
Within these boundaries, individual team members have to take the helm. If no one takes the lead, teams will at some point come to a standstill. But, there needs to be a balance. There needs to be room for other team members to contribute, make mistakes and learn all the while making sure the team progresses and avoids big screw-ups. Self-organizing teams are supposed to work everything out as a collective. But, it can not do that without individual team members taking the lead. Who need to respect the opportunities for other team members as well.
For managers outside of the team, the trick is to balance autonomy with alignment. Henrik Kniberg created the following four quadrants to illustrate this:
Organizations with self-organizing teams can not let go of alignment. Moreover, it is a requirement to allow autonomy. It is up to management to share their vision and lead the troops. But here’s the kicker, it needs to happen on the right level. Don’t tell a team what it is they need to do or how to do it. Inspire them. Make sure they understand the challenge at hand. Allow them to understand the why of their assignment and let them work it out from there. A tool I've co-developed to enable this is the Alignment Canvas
There is a place for leadership in and around self-organizing teams. But, the challenge is to show direction on the right level while respecting the boundaries of the autonomy of team members and teams.