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Self Directed Teams

I thought it would be useful to start with a definition, so here is one: A group of people working together in their own ways toward a common goal which the team defines.

Putting this into behaviours: can also be helpful to illustrate the positive aspects and give people a feel for what is required of success.


More of

  • Enthusiasm .
  • Learning from peers
  • Comfort knowing help is there
  • Camaraderie
  • Shared responsibility
  • Focus on the organization
  • Responsibility for the team
  • Simple, visible measurement

Less of

  • Individual opinion about what’s important
  • Reliance on individual abilities
  • Panic when workload peaks
  • Backbiting
  • Protecting information
  • What’s in it for me?
  • Stress on the "supervisor“
  • Feeling unaccomplished


This is all good stuff and it is clear that most organisations would aspire to this.

The question I am left with is, however, assuming high performance for both, what is the essential difference and benefits of this versus a team with a team leader? Perhaps, therefore, the real issue is high performance. Looking at the above lists, well led teams with competence leaders would have an aspirational list of behaviours that is essentially the same. It is all about individuals working together in a way that best meets the needs of the organisation and does not put personal or partisan interests first. Indeed, one of the challenges with any team structure is ensuring that the goals of the team are aligned to those of the organisation and that the organisations’s interests are put before those of the team itself (this is of course, replicated at the individual level as well). To be a little provocative one wonders if a self directed team would be better or worst placed to do this.

Having said all of this, I inherently like the concept of self direction and self directed teams. It does, of course, underpin the thinking of the original anarchist movement. A movement that I have always found compellingly laudable; but one that is fraught with challenge, challenge that they did not manage to overcome and thus the decline into behavious more commonly associated with the word anarchy. Taking the learning and applying it to today’s self directed teams within large organisations, the main difference is that these teams do have organisationally imposed rules and constraints. They are micro-climates within an organisational entity which quite probably has all the elements of hierarchy inherent in any large organisation. Sort of social experiments.

Thus looking at them and their chance of success part of the set up needs to consider how to buffer them from and yet integrate them into the rest of the organisation; the skill with which this is done can be a distinguisher between success and failure. It is not appropriate, nor alas, possible to ignore organisational reality, personal interests, corporate politics so the question has to be ‘how to control and harness this’.

In terms of organisation design I am a passionate believer in fluidity rather than rigidity. Different structures suit different times and different business priorities and drivers. As these change, it follows, that the organisation changes.

The organisation is there to ensure individual needs are met and protected, thus allowing the individuals to apply their energies unstintingly to the corporate goals. The corporate goals may differ radically from altruistic to profit and this may or may not impact on the values and the extent to which individual fulfilment is a goal in itself, but regardless of motive, fulfilment must be achieved if the organisation is to maximise individual and team contribution. Maslow’s hierarch of needs (see models in the knowledge centre on the main site) dictates this.

Returning to self directed teams, personal empathy aside, I believe that they can and should have a place in an organisation at different times. The implementation process itself cannot fail to have a positive benefit (consider the Hawthorne experiment – I will cover this in a different article if you are not familiar with it) and the values embodied by the self directed teams concept are indubitably ‘a good thing’. They are challenging to implement of course, and thus the business benefits need to be carefully thought through. Good examples can be found in manufacturing where implementation can have a dual benefit – removing the cost and control issues of junior supervisors, facilitating the removal of Spanish practices and job demarcations, instilling the values of continuous learning and responsibility. As it happens I have also implemented them at a very senior level. I also believe that they are hard work and not the only way to achieve the sort of behaviours I outlined at the beginning of this article. A high performing team with a leader in place can achieve this and possibly more easily. But if there are other goals along side this aim they should be one of the vehicles that are considered.

There are, of course, some situations where they should be avoided – for example if you are considering them as a solution to a situation where there is an absence of a clear leader or you do not want to promote a peer over other peers. These are always going to fail – the driver is not a business one but a short term inability to address an issue.

As I said, I did not explore this tender opportunity at all so I do not know what was being hoped for – but I was delighted to see that the concept continues to be one that organisations embrace.

Published by: Lisette on 02/09/2009 - Add a comment

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