Self-Organization Isn’t The Point | Jesse Fewell Self-Organization Isn’t The Point – Jesse Fewell

Self-Organization Isn’t The Point

By January 10, 2014Blog, Uncategorized

Fast Company’s article this week about has brought the debate over Self-Organization back into focus. But I’m thinking that the debate is sort of missing the whole point about what we’re trying to do with our workforce.

self-organization group holding hands in a circle

Specifically, CEO Tony Hsieh’ s decision to remove all manager roles has elicited a very skeptical counter point from Alison Griswold at Business Insider. She says essentially that self-organizing teams don’t scale, and everyone organization who’s tried to make it the norm eventually gave up in frustration. I do have my own thoughts on WHAT Self-Organization is, and HOW to make it work. But I think everyone is focusing on methods, rather than on mission.

Before I launch into my tirade, let me say that “I’ve been there.” My career started to take off when I was promoted to Team Leader and then to Project Manager. Right about the same time, I became enamored with modern management techniques like Lean Thinking and Agile Product Development.  I was thrilled to be getting ahead, finally. But after a few colossal disasters, I realized that there is much more subtlety to the world of work. In the last several years I’ve lived in the tension between the traditional way and the modern way of leading teams to get work done. Here is where my thinking has taken me:


Self-Organization is a strategy, not a goal.

Book Cover: First, Break All The Rules

My favorite management book…ever

At the end of the day, a business needs to generate results. Sure, we like innovation, productivity, excellence, quality, and stuff like that. But for any of those things to happen, we need engagement. My all time favorite management book is First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham. (If you’ve never read the book, stop what you’re doing now and go buy a copy and come back to this post. It’s that important of a book.)

It was a ground-breaking piece that gives the recipe for real employee engagement. Interestingly, many of these questions go beyond the supervisor. Rather, many of them are basic “care and feeding” questions, like:

  • Do I have the materials and equipment that I need in order to do my work right?
  • Does the mission or purpose of my company make me feel that my job is important?
  • Do I have a best friend at work?

The book cites example after example of great managers who work very hard to address these employee satisfaction factors. In fact, Gallup has since discovered that, if you address this engagement thing right, people would work for you even after they win the lottery!


Self-Organization is only one way to get engagement

Okay, so all this management stuff is about driving results, and results come from the engagement of our people, then what management system should we employ to drive engagement? One curious example was Henry Ford. He was a notorious business autocrat, who invented many elements of micromanaging. However, he famously paid as much as double the going rate for his factory workers, just to keep them from leaving. His approach was the antithesis of self-organization, and all it did was make his company successful.

In Zappos’ case, the culture is driven by the belief that loyal customers come from loyal workers. In Ford’s case, the culture was driven by an economic equation overpaying and micromanaging workers. Both management systems are polar opposites with respect to culture, but both drive results.

Self-Organization can be used for both good or evil

With that being said, let’s say you want to give it a go. You charter a couple teams. You give them some training. You send them off to achieve new productive, innovative heights. But then, you eventually discover that…

  • without any facilitation skills in place, the team succumbs the most opinionated voice.
  • without standards in place, one team’s output simply won’t integrate with another team’s output.
  • without a clear vision, the team’s output will steer wide of organizational goals.

But when done well, you CAN get amazing results.

In their book, Software in 30 Days, management gurus Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber tell the story how they used self-organizing teams to save the FBI’s half-billion dollar Sentinal program. Like hundreds of other business coaches out there, I’ve been teaching and implementing their method as a full-time job now for over 5 years. I can say that I have seen similar successes, even life-changing successes.

So the devil is in the details. I agree that simply removing managers from the equation does not guarantee a new culture, but maybe it might help. My contention is don’t mistake the method as the mission.

Now it’s your turn

Is Tony Hsieh right about removing managers to improve culture? Is it just a pipe dream? Share a thought or comment here.