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7 Easy Steps to Encourage Self-Organization in Your Team

Published by Anne  |  Thursday, 26 July, 2012
Self-organization is a hot trend in many creative industries nowadays, and it can help your team greatly increase efficiency and motivation. The main aim of self-organization is to encourage self-actualization of the team members. When the team members can influence the decision-making process and are allowed to adjust their workload at least at some level, they feel more responsibility for the decisions made and, thus, are more motivated to execute them.

So if you decided to move to this concept within your company, what is with the best way to start? Here are 7 easy steps to begin the process.

1. Arrange a short intro meeting

A short introductory meeting is the best way to get the process started. Introduce the concept of self-organizing teams to people, as it may be new for some team members. Let them know about the benefits of it, such as improved efficiency, agile reaction to changes and self-actualization of the team members (you can find more of them in one of the previous posts). If the team isn't new, ask if there’s anything they’d like to improve in the way the team works right now. If it's a new team, find out what will make the team work well for them. While you are not obliged to implement each suggestion, they can be a great source of understanding of how the work process is really organized within the team and what can be optimized. Finally, let the team know how you are going to implement this concept, using the suggestions below as a starting point.

2. Set sensible milestones and checkpoints

The point of this kind of team is that it only has to regularly check in, but there are things both managers and team members can do to make the self-organizing team work well.

First of all, you need to do the planning at the beginning of each iteration. This means setting realistic milestones and checkpoints to enable the team to work efficiently to deliver results. Regularly working under the pressure of checkpoints is bad for the team’s morale. At the same time, the feedback cycle should be short enough so that you can quickly adjust things if you don’t get what you expected. 

That’s why the best approach is to split the workload into small, actionable items you can regularly overview upon completion. Team members also may set their own internal deadlines on the team meetings to enable them to meet the overall project goals. Your role here is to make sure that the team members' way of working is in harmony with the overall project schedule and recommend adjustments if necessary.

3. Let people leverage their talents

Once milestones are set, allow the team to decide on the tasks to do for the next iteration cycle and then let team members choose the ones they want to accomplish. This way, they can pick what they like most or what they are best at. Of course, if some tasks turn out to be unpopular, someone will still have to do them. In this case, you can be guided by the team members’ experience in this area and their current workload. If the team has embraced the self-organization concept, everything will get done, as it greatly increases personal motivation and awareness.

4. Don’t interrupt people once they start

It might be difficult, but you have to let the team get on with the project once they have started work. Give people their workload and set the checkpoints to see results. Don’t get into the minute details of how they do their jobs, and try not to switch priorities during the process. Of course, emergencies happen, but remember that each intervention lowers the efficiency of your team, and it should be done only if you find it indispensable for the project. Monitor progress according to the checkpoints you have set, and don’t forget:  In self-organizing teams, the role of management is to check in, not check up.

5. Facilitate the information exchange

Good communication is the key to making self-organizing teams work well. Set up a transparent communication structure for the team to keep each other up-to-date, as well as to provide feedback at set checkpoints and to talk to you if issues arise that need external help (such as altering team selection). All team members should participate in regular team meetings (ideally weekly) and have a chance to speak out. You and upper managers need to be open to dialog with the team and must be ready to compromise when needed. Also, make sure the team runs regular internal meetings where they can keep each other in the loop of what each member is currently doing and ask for assistance, if needed.

6. Avoid a culture of blame

When things go wrong, it’s very human to start finger pointing and to try to find someone to blame. However, no one can avoid failure, and there are better ways to tackle it. For instance, the quite known conception of “little bets” suggests considering failure as an important feedback from the reality that can help to adjust your project and get closer to success. With a self-organizing team, managers must accept that this is part of the process of creation and innovation. Instead of assigning blame for failure, focus on the steps needed to achieve success.

7. Regularly review and readjust the team’s work process

Use team meetings and check points as a great opportunity to review how the self-organization concept is working for your team and make readjustments, if necessary. Self-organization is sensitive to the team members’ personalities and circumstances. That’s why it requires constant balancing and individual adjustments to be made. For instance, if you see that some team members don’t get along with each other, you may make sure they don’t work together on one task or even move one of them to another project.

Of course, fully adopting self-organization is quite a complex process, and you need to be sure that it is the right approach for your company. This type of team may not work well for banks and government organizations, which have a strict hierarchical structure. However, more creative organizations can benefit from this type of team structure. Self-organization also works well for distributed teams, which require a more flexible team structure, and good project management software can facilitate the decision-making process.

Finally, don't forget to measure results as it is the only way to see if a self-organizing team is right for your organization. The real test of this type of team is productivity, efficiency, improved product quality and revenue growth. If your self-organizing team achieves all this, then it is a success.


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