Is ‘self-management’ realistic for organistions?

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Frederik Laloux introduced the Organisational Development world to the phrase ‘Self-Management’ as one of the 3 pillars of his model for ‘reinventing organisations’ outlined in his excellent book of the same name. The other two are ‘Evolutionary Purpose’ and ‘Wholeness’. I’ll save those for another time.

For those unfamiliar with the book, in describing self-management he outlines ‘factors’ such as the presence of truly autonomous teams, no bosses or organisation charts, no job descriptions or job titles, truly distributed decision-making, transparent, open information flow and healthy and open methods of conflict resolution. So just how desirable or realistic is self-management? Inevitably that depends on the level of benefit leaders perceive from introducing it into their ways of working.

And that’s an interesting juxtaposition because to get to the point where these options and ways of working can be considered the current ‘hierarchy’ has to be prepared to open themselves to what may feel like quite a challenging level of change on a personal level let alone what may be needed on an organisational level.

For many leaders it may feel a bit like a turkey voting for Christmas – almost a sense of undermining their own value or role within the organisation. If there are no bosses, autonomous teams, distributed decision making and so on, then what’s the role of the leader? Fear and panic (subconscious of course) shows up in the form of resistance to change and new ideas often described as ‘that just wouldn’t work around here’.

And of course in many cases that may well be true – not every organisation is ready to or needs to move to this new form of organisational life. That said, as our world becomes more volatile, less linear, more fast paced, more complex and more ‘emergent’, the need for organisations to be able to move quickly, respond to situations and opportunities and have a far more flexible way of working seems to become ever more present. The word ‘agile’ in a seemingly ever-present aspiration these days.

That can only be achieved by loosening the reins on some of the more engrained and traditional ways of managing and leading. This becomes the reason why more leaders may need to consider this option and reflect deeply on their role, being willing to really challenge themselves to notice any resistance they may have to changes in their control, power and authority. For sure in the world of ‘self-management’ there is still a need for governance and order otherwise there would be chaos. But it becomes more like a rhythm and dance – a space where each member truly knows how and where they can best contribute and have the space to do so.

I witnessed a sense of this more rhythmic way of working recently when a group of people were discussing a complex business issue. They came from many different functions within the organisation and they clearly felt able to move seamlessly across their own functional boundaries, without concern, to find the answers they needed. Did they have the authority to act – no, they still had to refer upwards to a large degree but they saw this more in terms of sponsorship than authority.

Moving to self-management requires a willingness to explore, experiment and gently navigate to a new way of being within the organisation. We see some of that happening today through the move toward a more matrix structure in organisations though for the most part this approach often gets strangled by the engrained ‘control needs’ of the more traditional governance structures.

So is self-management realistic? Maybe that’s not the right question. Perhaps the question is can we afford not to explore a truly different way of leading in organisations – one that strongly encourages more self-management from everyone as well as recognising the more dynamic and organic nature of life. If we don’t, we may find that the rigidity of the current structure stifles the ability to survive in the changing world we find ourselves in.

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