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Self steering or self organising?

March 3, 2018

I often hear people taking about the need for self steering teams. The logic is that organisations are getting ‘flatter’ and the reduction in hierarchy and managment layers needs to be compensated by making teams self steering. I agree that organisations are better of flat, and I agree that this requires a different kind of management and teams. However, I don’t think self steering is the right terminology.

For one, any terminology is flawed simply because giving something a name distracts from the fact that we should probably be talking about what we do, not about what we call it. But if I would have to choose, I follow my friend @arieenpaul who argues we need self organising teams rather than self steering teams. The way I see it is as follows:

For an organisation to function well, we need direction, effective decision-making, a degree of control, effective methods to get stuff done, and motivated professionals to take care of this.

  1. First, you need to determine ‘why we do things’ (or if you insist on terminology, a purpose, raison d’être, dot on the horizon, etc). Whatever shape or form you give it, it should simply describe how your organisation defines value. Not success, but value. It doesn’t have to look glossy in a folder or an annual report. It doesn’t even have to be one definition. As long as it describes the benefits to the organisation, it’s employees and other stakeholders if it manages to achieve planned results.
  2. Secondly, you need to have some kind of control over ‘what it does’. An organisation needs to be clear about what it chooses to do and what not. Of course, any decision should be guided by the ‘definition of value’. This sounds obvious, but often (or almost always) organisations suffice by defining when something is done, when they are successful. Though there is value in knowing you achieved results, it might be wise to also evaluate the results themselves.
  3. Finally, you will want to determine ‘how to do things’, or what needs to be done to achieve results, what time it will take and who needs to be involved.

Now, the main question is: If you are a manager, do you need to decide how things get done? Isn’t that something you could leave to the professionals in your team? Another question is: If you are a professional, should you determine for yourself why you do the things you do, what is valuable and what not? Isn’t that something that should be aligned across the organisation?

I think that you could separate two important roles in a company (like we do now, the manager and the team member). The ‘manager’ should help determine the value of different options a team has and reconcile with other teams across the organisation if they have the same idea of what’s valuable. The ‘team’ should determine what it would take to get the options realised should they be chosen. Once this is done, they together are best positioned to make the cost-benefit analysis needed to make a decision. So in short, the manager provides the ‘benefits view’ and the team provides the ‘cost view’. The manager connects the team to a higher purpose and the team connects the manager to practice.

This means that the manager should still do the steering and -therefore- the teams should not be self-steering. And vice-versa, the manager should not be involved in organising the work (certainly nog micromanage), but leave this to the ‘self-organising’ team. The manager can lead, the team can be autonomous.


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