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Managing in Organisations without Managers: Self-Management in Action

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At the recent Agile People conference in Stockholm, Sweden, Doug Kirkpatrick gave a keynote talk and a deep dive workshop about what it takes to adopt Self-Management in an organization.

Self-Management is the organizational philosophy represented by individuals freely and autonomously performing the traditional functions of management without mechanistic hierarchy or arbitrary, unilateral command authority over others.

He stated that Self-Management is based on two simple principles:

  • Individuals should not use force against other people or property
  • Individuals should uphold the commitments they have made to others

He says that these two principles are the foundation of all civil and criminal law, and that when people act in accordance with them the result is a peaceful and harmonious society, and when they work in organizations that apply these principles then they can become engaged, collaborative and high-performing.

He gave a brief history of where hierarchy came from, referring to the trans-continental railroad building of the 1800's in the United States. Coordination of the many thousands of people working across the whole continent required professional managers, and this became the basis for most management structures in the USA for the following 200 years. In traditionally managed organisations, there is a clear demarcation between managers (who are the decision makers) and labourers who must simply do what they are told. Job specialization is also a result of this approach.

These structures and approaches worked in 19th and 20th century organizations, with less and less effectiveness as the economy shifted from mechanistic work to knowledge work. The chronic lack of engagement and dissatisfaction in work is evidence that command and control management is not effective in the 21st century.

Self-Management starts with a Colleague Letter of Understanding (CLOU); every person in the organization writes their own letter of understanding and agrees on it with the people they will interact with. The letter has two sections – Personal Commercial Mission and Process Accountabilities.

The Personal Commercial Mission section answers three questions:

  1. Why do I want to work here?
  2. What does excellence look like in my role?
  3. How does what I do support the mission of the organization?

Process Accountabilities identify the specific tasks/activities the person will undertake, the decision rights associated with the activity and the key performance indicators for that activity.

A key aspect is that this is written by the individual and agreed on with their colleagues – it is not a traditional job description written by someone else and handed down. When employing new people, the group of people who have identified the need may list the gaps which they feel need to be filled, but the person taking the role writes the Colleague Letter of Understanding.

This Colleague Letter of Understanding can change as the individual sees the need to change aspects of the work they do, and if they want to expand their responsibilities into other areas. This needs to be negotiated and agreed on with those who they work with, or will work with in the new structure.

Conversations and decision making in Self-Managing organizations should be a flow of commitments – where a request is made, conditions of satisfaction are negotiated and clarified, a promise is made, delivery is declared when the committer feels the work is done, and the requestor declares the activity complete (or gives feedback that it is incomplete).

The network of commitments represents the ever-evolving structure of the organization. Kirkpatrick played a time-lapse video showing how the commitments formed a network that changed and evolved over time in Morning Star, the Self-Managing organization he was first involved in.

On the vexing topic of compensation, he described how salaries are set at Morning Star, starting from identifying the industry norms for the role and paying at the top of the salary scale. They then add a percentage uplift because everyone is doing some of the activities which would otherwise be the responsibility of a manager (planning, organizing, coordinating, staffing, directing).

He also explained (and in the workshop demonstrated via role play) a multi-step dispute process which can be used when individuals disagree about an aspect of work of behaviour. This starts with the two parties attempting to reach an agreement amongst themselves, escalating to include a single mediator, then escalating to a panel of mediators (in these two steps the mediators can provide advice but cannot make decisions), and finally to an agreed arbitrator who is given binding decision-making authority. He said that in Morning Star the final arbitration process is only ever used a few times a year as people generally figure things out for themselves.

Kirckpatrick's keynote talk is available on YouTube along with all the other talks from the conference.

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