Self-management and public administrations are not a match you say?

I met Bernd Reichert at a training I offered in Brussels on Self-management. During introductions everyone was surprised that we had amongst us a Head of Unit from a European Union Agency that supports small and medium enterprises to bring disruptive innovations to market. Even more surprising was that he was already implementing self-management since 2014 and was there to fine tune his practices and reflect on how he was doing it! It’s not evident how to implement self-management within a larger hierarchical organization; the story of Bernd is helpful if that is your situation and to learn that it is actually possible! After the training I interviewed Bernd to learn a bit more about his amazing story. Here it is.

How did you come to being a ‘director’ of a self-managing unit at a European Union Agency?

I participated in an Art of Hosting training with some colleagues; in the European institutions it is named Participatory Leadership. At that training I was given the book Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux by one of the team. This gave words to the ways I was thinking and working and supported my shift to deliberately develop my unit with self-organization, wholeness and evolutionary purpose (the three main elements described in the book).

However, I was challenged because in the book Laloux states that if you are in a bigger organization and you are not at the top, or the people at the top are not supporting working like this, then forget it. Later on Laloux did change this story though, stating the job of the manager is to hold what he calls, the “shit umbrella”. That’s to say, make sure people can do their work in a self-organized way and also take care of the people who don’t understand this way of working.

How is your unit set up?

We are currently 60 people and still growing. We are organized as per our business processes into three strands of about 20 persons each: i) Evaluation of proposals; ii) Contract management; iii) Business acceleration. Each sector has a ‘head’ of sector who acts as team coach and helps the sector find its way of what they are doing. Each sector is organized into teams of 5–6 people. There are no orders.

How is a self-managing unit perceived within your European Agency?

If you deliver, people leave in you peace. They might think you are crazy, but they leave you in peace. When I first let my colleagues attend a meeting between business units on my behalf their was an uproar. Then over time it became normal.

What is a challenge you still have to figure out?

Performance assessment and promotions. There is an invitation now to do performance assessment as conversations in groups. But we work with people who do expect the organization to work in a certain way and “does” the assessment to them. This is a major issue right now.

What does your recruitment process look like?

The important part of the recruitment process is being able to get a sense if the person applying has a belief that self-management is possible. That’s basically all we are looking for. They don’t need to know ‘how’ to do it, but at least believe in the possibility.

What have you had to unlearn?

1. I am able to decide by myself. It’s a deeply rooted belief that there has to be a hierarchy.

2. You are allowed to make errors. We very much come from a blame culture. So that is huge.

3. Work can be fun. There is an ingrained belief that if you get paid for doing this work it must be serious and hard.

What impact is this having on other units? If any?

Here are two self-managing practices that are being picked up by other units:

1. Freedom — you are the best positioned to know the best place where you need to be during a work day and how you track your hours. Everyone has flex time and telework as they wish. The priority is more on delivering on the work rather than having to know where a person is.

2. Personal development. Training is free and you can take trainings on whatever you want. The priority is people developing themselves rather than having to take trainings related to their job.

What is your advice for other leaders in large hierarchical organizations contemplating a shift to self-organization?

Just let go. You cannot know what will happen until you do it. It’s like everyone is standing around a swimming pool and now everyone is allowed to go in. There is no real danger because the swimming pool is shallow. You can stand up at any time.

Thank you Bernd for sharing.
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