Building Teams to Self-Manage and Grow

Self-directed teams — sometimes called self-managed teams, empowered work units, or autonomous work teams — function in their truest sense without supervisory authority. Team members are interdependent, but the role of supervisor usually is missing. A self-directed team is as much a team as any other, but it has a unique management structure — no supervisor.

By comparison, a regular work group reports to a supervisor who is part of the group. In many such cases, the supervisor does much of the same work that the group members do, or he performs a higher level of the overall work that the group must accomplish. Self-directed teams, on the other hand, report to a manager, but generally no management personnel are part of the team's ongoing and daily operations.

The role of manager or supervisor, in the case of a self-directed team, is replaced by all the members of the team. Together, they plan and execute the work, day in and day out, carrying out the directions set by management above them. It isn't unusual for only one manager to oversee several self-directed teams.

Getting started is one big challenge with a self-directed team, but keeping the team moving forward is another. You can do it by remembering to focus on the important elements of the early stages of implementation that are covered in the following sections.

Communicating

Teams meet frequently to plan and carry out their work, and you want to use those face-to-face occasions to provide leadership and direction and not have to rely so much on e-mail messages. Keep in closer contact by being present at occasions like these:

  • Regular team meetings with your core group of team leaders who pass on information to the teams
  • Periodic all-hands meetings at which you bring together all the team members
  • Occasional drop-in visits with team meetings to stay in touch
  • Regular MBWA, or Management By Walking Around

MBWA is an effective form of informal communications. You walk around to people's work areas for a few minutes of social chatter. You have the rest of the day to handle business issues, so have a little fun. MBWA is a communication strategy that makes you a visible leader and enables you to gain a better knowledge of your team members as people and not just as employees.

Establishing training as a regular business practice

Stating your expectations about training and helping your team find the resources that it needs to meet those expectations is a vital part of your job. You can evaluate their success when you evaluate team performance.

Expanding team responsibilities one step at a time

Ultimately, a truly self-managed team handles all responsibilities that a work group supervisor would. But a team can't assume all those responsibilities at once. Team members need time to discover and absorb various supervisory routines into their daily functions, especially administrative matters. When asking a self-directed team to take on new responsibilities, follow these steps to effectively delegate responsibilities:

  • Spell out the results that you expect.
  • Define the parameters that team members need to work within, especially limitations on time and authority.
  • Provide the training and other forms of support that team members need to take on new duties.
  • Set up checkpoints for reviewing progress.
  • Evaluate the results.
  • Set new goals.

Maintain ongoing accountability and focus with your self-directed teams by setting the frequency — quarterly, perhaps, but no less than once every six months — with which you plan to evaluate team results versus performance targets. Requiring the team to make presentations to you as part of this evaluation process really pushes the responsibility level for achieving results to everyone on the team. You may also want the team to produce an interim report of its performance, say, monthly, much as a supervisor is often required to do.

After a team evaluates its progress, with business direction provided by you, have team members reset their performance goals for the next time period and the plans on how they'll achieve those goals. That, after all, is why they're self-managed teams. Hold them accountable for achieving results.

Developing systems to fit the team structure

When venturing into self-directed teams, you often discover that the systems and policies of your organization don't always make a good match with the new team structure. For example, when company policy says that only someone in supervisory authority can sign off on vacations, employee timesheets, and purchase requisitions, you need to work within your company structure to modify these systems. Administrative areas that may require change include quality assurance practices, vendor relations, compensation, staff administration, work schedules, employee recognition, and performance reviews. You don't want your self-managed teams constantly colliding with internal obstacles when they are charged with managing those same functions. You need to serve as a barrier buster, helping your teams grow in managing their own performances.

Continuously addressing issues and making improvements

When observing how your self-managed teams are progressing — from what's working well to what isn't — you have an opportunity to help them get better at developing solutions.

As much as you possibly can, delegate the development of solutions and periodic review of progress as a means of helping them maintain their accountability. Whenever people don't know what to do, show them and coach them, but seldom volunteer solutions yourself. Whenever you want a team to become self-managing, you want team members taking responsibility for addressing issues and making their solutions work.

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