Self-managed teams: not just Liip service

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Sharon Jay

Here at Five Mile, we proudly focus on delivering the best digital solutions for our clients to help them grow. But how do we, Five Mile, as an SME ensure we’re also growing in the right way?

Sometimes it’s good to hold the mirror up and ask: Can we improve our approaches? Can we experiment more? Can we adjust our lens? Can we grow internally as individuals and subsequently as an organisation? These are really tricky questions, but as Five Mile Business Manager - and owner - they are questions I have to not only ask, but act on.

As a business owner I want to help my team to ‘raise their game’ and am continuously looking for ways to achieve Five Mile’s business objectives and successes, which will subsequently benefit us all.

This means we at Five Mile have to explore ways to create a better organisational structure that allows individuals to release their full potential. In this, the first of three blogs, I will consider what a ‘self-managed’ team means and what the benefits of it are.

Background: The Liip Model

We know that we don’t have all the answers, which means we sometimes have to look externally for inspiration and ideas to improve our working culture. One such example is what I call the “Liip Model”.

I first heard about Liip - a Swiss Drupal web agency - at DrupalCon Barcelona, 2015 where Liip Partners Lukas Kahwe Smith and Tonio Zemp delivered a session entitled ‘Self-managing organisations: Teal is the new orange’.

As I say in my previous blog written after attending their session:

“Liip have a great philosophy and a deep sense of responsibility for the development of their working culture. Traditional business methodologies such as growth plans don’t have a place because they are restrictive.

“Their self management practices advocate freedoms which allow their people to excel. It’s not about roles it’s about skills and motivating team members to take responsibility because they want it, ending the parent-child management methods.”

You can see their full session here but the fundamental focus of the Liip Model explores what motivates ‘us’ as an SME. By doing this, in theory, we can subsequently improve the organisational culture: from empowerment and trust to willingness to accept change and having no fixed roles.

DrupalCon Barcelona 2015: Self-Managing Organizations: Teal is the new Orange

This is all about better unlocking the talent of the people in your team: how they - and everyone - work together to get things done and partake in the success of the company.

One size doesn’t fit all: but it’s a great starting point

To be clear, FIve Mile might struggle to adopt all aspects of Liip’s approach due to our size but there are some key elements that could really benefit us as an SME:

  • Everyone understands and collectively embraces why Five Mile exists: our business direction, purpose and shared common goal

  • With the above in place, team members would focus on work that is more aligned with their strengths while reaching the common goal

What should a self-managed team mean for Five Mile?

One of the key characteristics of SMEs like Five Mile is that we are often led by projects. While this is of course important, we also have to work towards a cohesive focus on our own business outcomes. This is big picture stuff, but tackled in a smaller bite sized manner.

But you can’t have a self managed team if you don’t have self managed people. So in reality a self-managed team would:

  1. Have freedoms to take responsibility and govern their own roles: what they do and why

  2. Not be under command, control and direction from MDs: the team would become autonomous

  3. Work without any supervisory authority: the MDs would have the freedom to build the business

  4. Ultimately become accountable for achieving results

Inspiring and motivating individuals is critical to organisational success

Why do these four points resonate with me? Because as Business Manager, I’m all for freeing up bureaucracy to improve our culture. A huge part of that is to understand what really inspires and motivates the Five Mile team.

Why is this approach relevant to SME's?

Employee accountability and autonomy helps reduce costs and allows for SME’s to operate more efficiently. In my view:

  1. When team members are given more opportunities to develop scope and to be able to find solutions to problems in their roles I believe that they become more innovative and motivated
  2. A motivated team member is more likely to start initiatives that benefit across the business - thereby creating motivated teams
  3. Motivated teams are happy teams
  4. Happy teams have greater productivity and this positively impacts the bottom line

What can SME's learn from this approach?

By working smarter, I think team members will subsequently:

  1. Identify new ways to work together better

  2. Do more with less and identify new ways to basically ‘get things done’ without the stress and risk of over servicing

  3. The team and the business is driven by autonomy

  4. We create a virtuous circle of improvement as we work towards a common shared goal

How could Five Mile incorporate this approach?

Without a doubt, getting started is a huge challenge for us, but I don’t think that we have to have everything worked out. Sometimes you have to simply start to work towards change. And yes, change can cause tensions but often ‘good’ tension can drive evolution.

Key steps:

  1. We need to keep teams moving forward, ensure communication is at the heart of our process and break the ‘parent-child’ relationship dynamic that often evolves in SMEs (more on that in my next blog). So we at Five Mile will start exploring the options and start having the conversations within the teams

  2. We then have to expand team members responsibilities one step at a time considering each team member's experiences, skills and personality

  3. Finally, we need to clearly define what the expectations are and define the parameters that each team member needs to work within, providing the training and support they need with constant reviews.

In conclusion, we do have to be realistic about timeframes: What can we achieve and what new goals need to be set while maintaining ongoing accountability and focus? We can’t put off change and the Five Mile team are a powerful force!

What might the barriers be for Five Mile?

Resistance to change is inevitable: we’ve all become comfortable within our roles and routines. What’s more, you can’t enforce a culture change - but you can lead by example. That said, it’s going to take cost, time, energy and resource. Which means there has to be a investment from every team member or it won’t work: disengaged team members will struggle in a self-managed team and it’s very easy to slip back into old habits.

But through leading by example to build trust and confidence we will let go of old thinking and embracing a new approach. I’ll be exploring the challenge of how we can actually implement these ideas in my next blog: “How do we stop and learn when we have no time to stop and learn?”

In the meantime I’d be interested to hear your views and ideas on what a ‘self-managed team’ means for you.

About Sharon:

I help identify and develop ideas and approaches to ensure that Five Mile continues to grow as a strong and ambitious digital agency passionate about user experience, open-source technology, community and culture. At Five Mile I take pride in ensuring that our talented and expert team deliver great digital experiences, create happy users and ultimately help businesses thrive.