Making self-management sustainable:
how to structure decision-making in self-organizing teams
One of the knots to untie in implementing self-management is ensuring participation in decision-making while maintaining a healthy balance between the time invested by employees in managing the business and the time allocated to the core tasks of each team and unit.
About the author
SIMONE is a Senior Consultant and Designer at atrain. In his job at atrain, Simone works on supporting organizations to implement holistic and human-centric transformations.
His philosophy is to do so through the conscientious evaluation and use of the best available evidence, to make more effective and thorough decisions. His other areas of expertise include sarcasm, dog whispering and finding always the most appropriate quote from Friends or The Simpsons to describe a situation.
Decision-Making by consensus
Oftentimes, organizations that move from a hierarchical setup to a more empowered system tend to adopt decision-making by consensus, striving to find agreement across everyone involved in a decision before even agreeing on how to make a decision.
Let’s face it, consensus feels good. Or at least, it feels good at first, when we accept inefficient decision-making as a reasonable trade-off for avoiding the uncomfortable disagreements that might come with not making everyone happy. On the other hand, when leaving someone’s point of view out of a decision, we might feel that we are not truly living up to self-management, given that in the end there will be someone to decide on behalf of someone else.
However, this way of decision-making can be extremely time-consuming and take away a significant amount of time from the activities that contribute to an organization’s output. A good example of this point is Zappos: once a poster child of Holacracy, within a few years’ time Zappos reintroduced some hierarchical elements in its organizational structure to “redirect employees’ focus back to the customer”. The reasons? “Big challenges in their business metrics, together with rigidly bureaucratic meetings”.
But how can we then move towards bottom-up decisions without over-investing time in internal processes? Here you can find two simple decision-making frameworks to help you make decisions in a self-managing organization, without over-investing in internal matters.
It is based on the idea of assigning accountability for decisions to the people who identify an issue and start working on it.
It is a valuable method to streamline approval on certain topics all the while ensuring transparency and allowing teams and individuals to take initiative. However, it is most suitable for rather simple decisions.
Integrative decision-making can be summarized in 3 basic principles:
• 1 Whoever recognizes a problem and makes a proposal on how to act on it becomes a proposal holder.
• 2 The other people consulted on the proposal can give advice, but they can block the proposal only if it harms the team or if it means going backwards. A proposal cannot be rejected by the people consulted on the basis of someone else having a “better” idea, as it may create room for politics or make the process unnecessarily lengthy, as there will always be a “better idea” from someone else regardless of what has been proposed.
• 3 The process should be facilitated by a team member who does not take part in such decisions, to ensure impartiality.
A simple Process
Based on the three principles above, you could think of a simple process to make decisions over the course of one or more working sessions:
1. Overview of the proposal by the proposal holder(s).
2. Round of clarifying questions with the rest of the team (no reactions to the proposal)
3. Reaction round, with no additional discussion yet.
4. The proposal holder amends the proposal and/or clarifies questions.
5. Objections round based on Principle 2
6. Finalization of the decisions by the proposal holder(s).
You can customize and adapt the structure based on the specific needs of the teams using it, but keep in mind that the priority here is the speed of execution rather than thoroughness, therefore it should be used for simple matters.
The advice process is similar to the “Integrative decision-making”.
This term does not only imply “asking for advice”, but it offers a structure to make sure that all the relevant inputs are considered.
In the advice process, the decision owner is required to seek advice from subject matter experts and from people affected by a certain decision before finalizing a proposal. However, there should not be the expectation of implementing every piece of advice. A strong prerequisite for this method should be agreeing upfront on who would be the best person to make decisions in a certain area, establishing a certain level of domain accountability within teams. It is also possible to prepare a set of options before asking for advice, but it is not a must.
Regardless of which of the two processes you choose to try out in your team, there is an important mindset shift required to make them work: be okay with missing out on decisions. On top of moving beyond consensus, making decisions in a self-managed organization does not mean necessarily that everybody has to play a crucial role in every decision. Rather, it means having transparency in what decisions are made and by whom, on the one hand, and on the other hand balancing different levels of individual involvement in every decision.
If self-management starts with leaders empowering employees with making decisions, the key to its sustainability lies in employees delegating decision-making authority to each other, rather than deciding together all the time. In other words, team members should show each other the same level of trust that they initially ask their managers.
References & Ressources for your interest:
- The two processes described here were adapted from this book, which I highly recommend to whoever is interested in the topic: Marsh, T., Lowe, B., Basterfield, S., (2017). Reinventing Scale-Ups: Radical Ideas for Growing Companies. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
- If you want to know more about how Zappos moved beyond Holacracy, you can start with this article