Self-directed Teams. Do We Really Need Managers?

Self-directed Teams. Do We Really Need Managers?

Charles Goretsky Charles Goretsky
15 minute read

As discussed in Stuck in the Middle (Management), middle management as an employee grouping is sailing through rough seas these days. The jobs are rapidly changing, the stress levels skyrocketing, and upper management is asking the question about the continuing need for them. Do we really need managers anymore?  Self-directed teams might be part of the answer. 

It’s a provocative question for sure.  

But it’s one that many leading organizational and leadership experts are asking, with vigor. For example, in their recent book Humanocracy (2020), Hamel and Zanini estimate that about one-half of the 23.8 million management roles are unnecessary. Gartner has predicted that “robo-bosses” will perform up to 69% of managers’ traditional (mostly administrative) tasks. In Josh Bersin's book Irresistible, he is suggesting that corporations reduce the power and level of managers based upon findings that support the notion of team collaboration and connection as the real drivers (vs. quality of management) of business success.

Data supports the pundits

Leading corporations have seemingly picked up on this thinking, with recent layoffs having hit middle management roles especially hard at Meta, Alphabet, FedEx, Twitter, Boeing, and others. In industries where automation is increasingly replacing human workers (manufacturing, banking, food service, warehousing, pharmaceuticals, retail, etc.) the need for managers is shrinking accordingly. Stories are emerging about some of these industry leaders asking leaders and managers to consider the choice of taking non-management roles or being laid off.  

Adding to this is research by the Workforce Institute at UKG that suggests that up to 40% of C-Suite executives, and 46% of managers are planning to quit in the coming 12 months due to the stress and burnout they are experiencing. So not only are the jobs being reduced, but their apparent lack of attractiveness is adding fuel to the fire, making the roles harder to fill with truly qualified individuals. 

Managerial span of control (SOC) ranges are currently being reported from roughly 5 to up to 10 employees per manager, with ratios higher for more routinized roles (e.g., customer support) and lower for more innovation-oriented roles (data science). Given the previously mentioned rise in automation (e.g., bots for completion of routine administrative tasks), it can be projected that the ratios will increase, thus reducing the need for the number of managers. The pressure to change is building.

The movement towards teams

An interesting offshoot of this thinking is the self-directed team. A concept that was introduced in the 1950s and 1960s as a movement for “industrial democracy” and “participative management.” Achieving widespread support in the 1980s, it was designed as a high-involvement practice aligned with flattened organization structures, cross-training, skill-based pay (it's back again!), and other related management concepts. Its relevance is further bolstered by the more recent adoption of Agile approaches to management outside of software development operations, which leverage multi-disciplinary teams to solve certain types of challenges or work outputs, such as manufacturing, customer service, or new product development. Furthermore, the future of work pundits agree that work will be increasingly deconstructed from jobs to tasks and projects, with more and more project teams being formed and then dissolved once the work is completed. 

Self-directed (or self-managed) teams are defined by the nature of their leadership, which transfers process control from a traditional manager to a team of employees. They are goal-driven, set their own standards and agreements on governance, define the processes required to get the tasks accomplished, typically name a leader, may receive guidance from a “coach” (trained in agile, six sigma, or other related concepts), and ultimately report to a (somewhat) distant manager who provides oversight on goal attainment.  

These teams are team member-managed, customer-focused, and multi-disciplinary in nature and are used across a wide swath of the corporate universe. In fact, 80% of the companies in the Fortune 1000 and 81% of manufacturing companies leverage some form of self-directed employee teams. Notables such as WL Gore, Zappos, Container Store, Timberland, and Whole Foods all employ this method of management. Their use has been promoted as a key element of the “Future of Work”, which with a shift from reliance on command-and-control leadership to distributed leadership, emphasizes giving people autonomy to innovate and using noncoercive means to align them around a common goal.

The advantages of self-directed teams 

By placing employees in self-directed teams a number of benefits can be accrued, primarily those related to employee skill development and satisfaction. Advantages include:

  • The primary outcomes of the increased autonomy and empowerment granted to the team members is that those lead to higher engagement, motivation, and retention. Employees who experience a heightened sense of trust and discretion to act tend to evolve into more responsible and engaged staff members.

  • The teams are development engines within themselves – with employees sharing responsibility for group norms and decision-making processes, skills that managers normally develop can be learned and practiced.  Problem-solving, communications, organizational, customer interfacing, and leadership skills can be targeted, as well as those related to the more technical aspects of the work, such as process design, improvement and optimization, and measurement and assessment.

  • Equally important is the introduction that all team members get to the different aspects and considerations of a process, product or service development and delivery. This brings them closer to the business purpose for those and provides context to the tasks they are assigned. Such exposure provides a uniquely broad view of the meaning and value of the work they and their teammates perform.

  • Team members become regularly involved in decision-making, which brings learning and development of more advanced skills that were previously limited to those in management positions.  The individuals learn how to better (and more broadly) assess a situation, listen to input, and come to a conclusion of their own.

  • As team members more frequently interface with project or process team sponsors, they gain valuable access to higher-level and more strategic thinking, practices, and considerations. These insights can lead to a better line-of-sight with the goals and objectives of the broader organization to which they report and a deeper understanding and connection to its direction.

  • Lower costs can be achieved through not only continuous improvement/process optimization opportunities presented to the teams but also due to needing fewer managers. These teams can have as many as 25 employees each (depending upon the nature of the work), much lower than the average 5 or 6:1 span of control typical of managers today.

Given all the development-oriented advantages of self-directed teams, these can and should be considered both a training and testing ground for future leaders. Decisions regarding the regular identification of high potentials (HIPOs) from these teams should become standard practice as part of the leadership development and succession management processes. Further use of these as developmental opportunities should be leveraged as regular assignments for those believed to hold higher potential for subsequent people, project, or process leadership roles.  

Building teams

As any consultant or accountant from a Big 4 firm can tell you, working in teams is a standard affair. While not self-managed (although a lax senior manager can leave a lot to a team’s discretion), the selection of teams is a key first step, and many lessons have been learned from constructing those project-based groupings of employees. The step to take after identifying the problem to be studied and solved, and a project plan built, is to identify the skills and attributes that are needed to meet the challenges addressed in the plan.  

Select for Technical Skills

A project leader(s) who has both project management and subject matter expertise is an important combination. Then the technical skill requirements for other team members are identified and sought out. That can be a relatively easy part, especially if a current employee skills database is available. If not, consulting functional/subject matter managers for available talent is a key step in the process. Skills are identified such as programming, numerical or data collection and analysis, requirements analysis, systems selection, user experience, communications and presentation, etc. Once those are identified a level of competence for each is clarified, and candidates are proposed.

Select for Psychological Attributes

A relatively stable, but less common step is to consider the attributes of the team members that can create the right blend of teaming talents.  Attributes (behavioral tendencies, strengths, or preferences) that define how an individual performs and collaborates helps build a team with diverse but complementary work styles. Behavioral, cognitive, and emotional capabilities such as vision, organization, strategy, and resourcefulness come to the forefront in the identification of players to fill important roles in an idealized team.  Many attribute-based roles are possible, but the key is to identify the core roles that are needed. For example, a classic project team might point to the need for someone who operates as an up-front leader, guiding others with vision and strategy communications skills; an analytical, data-seeking and processing guru; a connector or integrator of people, processes and concepts; an implementer who keeps the team grounded and the project on track; a creator or innovator who pushes the group’s thinking to what is possible, etc. 

Especially in the face of calls for more self-directed teams, team makeup (including leadership and followership styles) is a critical consideration to test for in a more objective manner.  Teams with a healthy mix of both technical and soft skill strengths will be more likely to work together better if placed in roles that take advantage of each of their strengths.    

Examples of team types frameworks and related products include CliftonStrengths, Kolbe Index, Deloitte’s Business Chemistry, Belbin Team Roles, and the Innovation Strengths Preference Indicator.

Where and how self-directed teams make sense

Self-directed teams require a clear purpose and structure, with the proper authority or authorization to plan and perform their efforts.  But more importantly, they need the right environment to operate effectively. Self-directed teams have been shown to be effective when the work and workflows are well-defined, where continual improvement and optimization of processes is desired, where the outcomes or outputs are clearly articulated and understood, and where the team members are sufficiently trained and skilled in performing the variety of tasks that must be executed.  Such teams operate best when autonomy is effectively granted, where the management culture supports and trusts employees to perform the entire process, and where employees understand and accept responsibility for decision-making as a group.   

As time goes by, and taking cues from the agile management movement, teams will be increasingly used and impactful in markets where customer preferences and product/services change regularly, where problems being faced are novel (and thus a need for creativity is high), work can be broken down into components, workflows cycle quickly, and the need for intimate customer knowledge is an essential element. 

To make this a success, self-directed teams require a few key elements to be successful:

  • A clear purpose and direction. Employees on these teams need to have their reason for existence clearly articulated, with objectives, goals, and success measures developed jointly.

  • Process, product or service expertise.  Teams need to have the right mix of skills (both technical and interpersonal) required to jointly plan, design, and perform all the tasks necessary for success.  Team members may require specialized training before launching into actual work (such as Lean or Six Sigma), and specialized roles may be assigned within the team.

  • Buy-in and ownership. Team members should believe in the mission of the team and be prepared to share ownership of their (and others) work, schedules and deliverables, and group decision-making/management processes. Team building and development may be part of their indoctrination or as the need arises due to the presence of any dysfunctions.

  • Acceptance of external oversight and feedback. Teams do not operate in a vacuum – they do require oversight and share accountability for success with a project sponsor. A facilitator may be used at the outset (and when needed during the team’s lifespan) to get the team up and running, or course-corrected during the team lifecycle.

Where managers are still needed

The role of the manager in this new world does not go away – while pundits may be signaling its imminent demise, the leader is still looked for and needed as a natural human expectation.  It has been pointed out that for all human history, people have looked to others to lead them, provide guidance, direction and security. And we naturally fall into roles within groups and have since childhood, with leaders, thinkers, ideators, doers, etc. in our social, athletic, and friendship groupings.  But the future of leadership will be different given changes in the changes in technology and a movement towards more hybrid workforces organized into teams.

1. Managing individual and organizational performance

Overseeing the output of both individual and teams will still require human interaction. Even with machines and algorithms taking over many repetitive and routine tasks and reporting on human work behaviors and work product, human judgement will still need to be applied.  Managers will be needed to assess levels of success, meeting of requirements, and overcoming the inevitable challenges and barriers that people meet when they are performing their work.  Managers will increasingly rely on automated reporting to assess and understand how the work is being done, and to what extent it is meeting the designed objectives but will need to interpret the data and analysis for decision-making related to the level of contributions being made.  

Certain practices can be made more effective by engaging a group of managers to relieve individuals of the weight of responsibility to “get it right” on their own when making certain types of decisions. A prime example is the use of talent review processes, where managers get together and share feedback and data on each employee within a common grouping and determine relative performance levels/ratings, salary increases, bonus payouts, potential ratings, development options, and next roles, etc. Other examples include the use of managerial team meetings to provide input to corporate strategies, cascade and assign functional/departmental goals, create operating budget requests and distribution decisions, etc.

2. Managing people and organizational growth

While the technology exists to understand an employee’s skills and aspirations, and make recommendations related to developing those, human interaction and understanding will still be required to validate and refine those. Keep in mind that not all development opportunities will be codified and digitized.  For example, while a system can see that an employee has certain skills and capabilities that overlap with an open job opportunity, a human can best determine whether that opportunity or another one should be selected because it is more suited to an organization’s business needs. Furthermore, while artificial intelligence applications for automated coaching and mentoring might become available in the near future, those will still be best delivered through interactions with discovery and solution-generation practices informed by and based upon the unique human skills and experiences of a particular leader. 

Managers will still need to identify and plan strategic directions based upon assessments of the compiled wisdom regarding external conditions and internal strengths and weaknesses to determine opportunities for growth and prosperity. Managers at all levels will have more time to consider either the creation of, or internal response to new business strategies.  If not at a level that develops strategies, then those in middle management will continue to be needed to provide critical feedback to top leadership on the reasons that strategies are failing to yield their intended results, and options for getting those back on track.

3. Leading self-directed teams and individuals

While self-managed teams don’t have a leader heading it from the inside, leadership still plays a crucial role in their success. Managers will be needed to provide linkages and context between organizational goals and those of the individual and group. Self-managed teams require clearly defined goals and values that can be used to inspire and drive the successful completion of tasking and achievement of objectives. Managers will be needed to demonstrate and role model the behaviors and skills required for leading an employee-empowered organization. Surrendering direct, day-to-day control by showing employees and teams not only that they are trusted, but also how to leverage such newfound control responsibly is a key element of leading these teams.

Finally, even if only managing multiple teams from more if a distance, leaders will still be called upon to motivate, lead, and inspire those under their organizational flag. The need for providing more impartial guidance and coaching for both individuals and teams who have fallen out of a positive performance pattern will continue to be a value-added role of management.  Identifying dysfunctional teams, coaching and guiding them back to constructive relationships and workflows will require uniquely human skills.

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