Many managers are stretched thin due to a high number of direct reports, or have their own full time responsibilities as an individual contributor, or the responsibilities of the team are so diverse and specialized that the manager cant really understand what everyone does. When these situations arise there are complaints about absence of leadership, lack of team cohesion, and poor execution of management practices. Organizations often respond with manager training, yet the problems persist.
Organizations structured this way are encouraging teams to figure out how to be self-directed, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But since it is “accidental” the elements of an effective self directed team are often missed. For example, one form of self-direction is for everyone to do their own thing, which at best causes waste but can also lead to working at cross purposes, conflict, waste, and missed deliverables.
A solution is to accept that managers are stretched thin and intentionally make traditional teams more like a well-designed and functioning self-directed work team (SDWT). Self directed work teams that are established intentionally and operate well can perform as well or better than traditional leader-led teams.
Here are some of the key elements that can help a team transition to be effective in self-direction:
- Clarity on the team empowerment for decision making. SDWTs know what can be decided internally to the team and what has to be escalated. Senior leadership is careful about “dipping down” and disempowering the team at random times.
- Well designed SDWTs balance the need for teamwork and autonomy. In fully functional SDWTs the individual empowerment for decision making within jobs is high. Jobs are “enriched” by allowing persons in the job to make decisions on the spot. Training and information is provided so that job holders are not dependent on outside experts or a manager to be able to make day to day decisions.
- Most SDWTs define “team roles” that distribute elements of the traditional manager job to assist the team with internally focused responsibilities or externally focused responsibilities. Examples of internal roles can be work assignments, communications, and training coordination. External roles include coordinating with other teams, communicating with suppliers and with customers.
- SDWTs should have a clear operating model, especially what meetings will occur, who the right people are to be in meetings, how decisions will be made, documented and monitored. The team is flexible, but team members know how the team operates, rather than everything being ad-hoc.
- SDWTs know how team performance will be measured and how the team will deal with performance issues and successes. SDWTs usually are skilled in problem solving methods so that they can self-improve performance issues. Some self-directed work teams evaluate skills of their members rather than performance and deal with high or low individual performance on an exception basis.
- Multi-skilled, flexible people. Rather than narrow jobs and narrow people, SDWTs encourage skill depth and breadth, and the flexibility in jobs to allow people to use their skills as needed to further the teams goals, which may be simply covering for someone’s vacation or absence, or ganging up on a problem.
- Managers or Team Leaders are coaches to the team, often pushing decisions to those who are most knowledgeable, ensuring that team members are working together to improve their performance, and that the team is interacting effectively with the organizational system around it.
Becoming a mature and effective SDWT does not happen overnight. But it can be a more realistic solution for todays organizations that are unlikely to reduce the number of direct reports or relieve managers of non-managing responsibilities. It can also “jointly optimize” the satisfaction of employees and team performance.