What is self-management, really?

What’s the difference between participatory management and self-management?

If you’re an agile learning organisation, does that mean that you practice self-management? Almost, but not quite, is the short answer.

Since 2007, the social enterprise percolab functions with a strong learning culture and edgy practice.  Nobody tells anyone what to do, people show up as their full selves and purpose is the driving force behind the work. Percolab helps clients create the conditions for collaboration and adaptable organizational culture. We work with a wide range of clients from community groups through to government and startups. We use a blend of ancient and new social methodologies and a dash of technology.

Each new person who joins the team (we are 10 and growing) has to figure out  how to get on in this nonconventional company. Many typical employee  behaviours are difficult to play out as the other party (ie. the employer) doesn’t cooperate as a boss. The team ensures most staff support functions. We all partake in business development, communication, marketing, invoicing and human resources. Everyone works when and where they want, even though our offices are in coworkings. Anyone can manage projects or start a collective venture. No one asks permission to take vacation, attend an event or training. Our team meetings take place in circle.

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Percolab team member working where and when he wishes.

Yet, despite all that freedom and innovative practice, who was making  the significant strategy decisions? The two co-founders! Flattening the organisational processes and practicing collective intelligence was not enough for the company to flourish in self-management.  The company needed a new structure to support the team to lean forward and the co-founders to lean back.

As the team grew  we were becoming less and less comfortable with the title of “Co-directors”. The notion of “directing” someone seemed contrary to the working culture we were nourishing.  The co-director titles were maintaining a hierarchical paradigm we were stepping away from. Could we not be co-learning and co-evolving  together instead?

The big shift

In 2015 two shifts happened at percolab. First, the co-founders shared the financial files of the company with the whole team. Yes, financial reporting, invoicing, budgets, expenses, payroll was now available to all. Second, the co-founders brought 12 key strategic proposals to the team.  The whole team openly discussed the proposals and adopted them together. These two acts are what set percolab into its full self-managing swing. The co-founders were becoming conscious of the subtleties of power dynamics. The team was not going to self-organise without a formal structure that could help us unravel our habits. Team members needed to stop deferring to the co-founders for figuring things out.  The co-founders needed to stop making decisions for others before anyone could get involved.

How had we found ourselves at this place? Easy enough. The co-founders had been making strategic decisions since the company’s beginnings. Space and freedom for the team was not enough for others to elbow in.  Our daily culture of collective intelligence, experimentation and openness created the illusion that we were self-governing.  It was not easy to see that co-founders were excluding the team from key financial information and strategic decision making. The classic dynamics of money and power were amongst us!

A new structure

As collaborative practitioners with a self-organising mindset we have been able to shift quite naturally and in a way that we can be proud of. Once we had made a collective decision to modify our functioning, change flowed  easily. Within weeks we were set up in a light version of self-management. We integrated certain principles from holacracy. We mapped out the myriad tasks of the company and grouped them into 30 roles that we co-wrote together. We held a workshop to attribute the roles. We all took on roles that we wanted or roles that someone else thought we could steward well. No one assigned anyone a role. It was clear that the roles would rotate between us over time. As simple as that, authority was now distributed within the organisation. Given our ease with prototyping novel practices, working with roles feels good.  It’s a practice that we will play with and fine tune for a long time forward, as learners.

Lessons learned

Today, we are a more conscious team. We know how easily hierarchical command and control reflexes can creep up, even on those who work in participatory ways.  We are clear that there is no need to be making all decisions all together. We trust other team members to make wise decisions for the company using exemplary decision making processes. In the next articles we will share the nuts and bolts of how we got rolling on our self-organising structure.  For now, here are the three lessons that stand out.

1. Being a purpose driven, funky and participatory company does not equate to self-management.

2. With a strong learning and experimentation culture, the shift to self-organisation is a relief and release.

3. Self-management doesn’t just spontaneously happen, it needs to be named and structured.

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