I’ve been somewhat captivated by, and somewhat incessantly strong in my belief in, self-managed systems of work.
The last 2 days with a collaborator of mine’s client (wonderfully shared with me in this case) who is unequivocally establishing self-management in a new venture, from the get-go; and this has affirmed that belief and re-captivated my interest in, self-management.
Me in the early 2000s, Ricardo Semler’s Maverick book — which to many others I know similarly pro- this form of operating a business — defined something I’d sensed was right.
Professor Gary Hamel’s The Future of Management. Professor Julian Birkenshaw’s Reinventing Management did the same.
Issac Getz and Brian Carney’s Freedom Inc. and then the big one Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations fanned the flames into a raging energetic firestorm in me.
Self-management is my committed, unwavering belief in how work should be. ALL work? Why not. Hell yeah. I am stronger than ever in that belief.
Ah but, it just won’t work in some circumstances. It would be best if you had a hierarchy.
I’m just not convinced.
Will there be a total eradication of hierarchy? Maybe not. But certainly, there will be no positional “almighty” in one person; in a small team of “seniors” or in stratified layers.
We’ve seemingly convinced ourselves we HAVE to operate as a hierarchical construct. And that’s what it is in the way we set up most enterprises. A construct.
Yes, but look, politically, monarchies, military etc etc.
Well, yes. But in reality, the way work — of any sort — gets done is not necessarily as orderly and as default-like in a hierarchal constructed sense, as we might lead ourselves to believe.
Moving to a self-managed, flatter, more egalitarian and sociocratic system is an act of defiance against the prevailing default sense that we have to form ourselves into a hierarchy.
Sure we have respected and experienced hands. Highly qualified, confident figures. Experts and revered practitioner professionals.
But if they share that defiance to not be the all-knowing and unquestionably be the/a leader, I honestly believe we see, experience and attest to something very special indeed.
Our true selves, our most revealed and appreciated selves, and our destiny-shaping selves that will rarely, if at all, be evident and expressed when we’re buried in a hierarchy.
In my experiences of researching, practising and even guiding people into non-hierarchical, self-managed forms, I see and sense people can truly mature, develop, unleash and express who they really are and what they’re here (in the world) to do.
That is such a deeply moving and powerful state to be in. And in self-managed systems, it’s not fleeting or situational, you “be” that self all the time.
You explore, test, experiment, apply, compile, adapt, and amplify a sense of something where you are not distanced from the meaning and reason for being of the organisation you are a part of. It’s so near you can feel it and be with it. More avidly, assuredly and actively.
My quest then, is to actively and with unwavering commitment bring more self-managed, self-organised, and aligned self-interest-framed ways into work.
But people are notoriously unreliable and therefore we need firm and somewhat compliant ways to ensure people do what they should.
And yet. In the hierarchical constructs we see waste, ambivalence, detachment and downright subversion of what people should be doing; through social loafing; misdirection, faking, gaming and more.
And we’re still convinced a hierarchy is a more effective and even efficient way of being, to control human beings into a coalesced form of utter conformist application to their tasks and set goals.
And we rarely, if ever, allow ourselves to even contemplate that a loosening of the rigid confines of a hierarchy might just be better.
My bias may be on show here. And I really don’t care. I’m THAT convinced by self-managed systems that I am OK with that. Call it a bias if you like, because really, it’s as strong a belief as I could possibly hold. I’m all in for self-management. Affirmed beyond reasonable doubt.
It is not easy though. In exercises, in discussion, in posing problems and attempting to find solutions. In designing, defining and directing our efforts self-management feels tough, tricky and time-zapping.
So I can see how people might say “Oh it’s so easy if we just accept that they (or someone else) leads it so I can let it go and revoke any daydreams I might have that I will not be oppressed, excluded and shaped by others.”
“And my ideas, inputs and inclinations must be ratified, approved and sanctioned by someone “higher” than me.”
The 21st century is conspiring against that though.
It may not seem that way but the clustering of issues and problems, the magnitude and complexity of how difficult things are, and the intensity, nervousness, uncertainty and aversion to alternatives are there for a reason.
They are the system calling out for a change. As my good friend Erik Østergaard says signals from the future.
That system is currently, still, hierarchical dominance. And that system is in a more advanced stage of decay and readiness for a radical overhaul than we might previously have sensed or been led to believe.
Really? You might say? Are you sure?
Whatever evidence we have — surveys like the big tech and consulting giants put together (and somehow seem to link to their products and services…hmm) and more generally things like ONS and CIPD reports (see here) show us there are high levels of stress and low levels of engagement (whether that’s the right measure we can only go with what we have); phenomena I won’t name because they’re not necessarily validated but you know what I’m referring to, and things like general anecdotal discourse of employer let-downs, struggles on the place of work and productivity levels low. The CMI produced a report recently saying bad management was costing the UK significant loss in income/capital value (here). I really don’t need to go on, do I?
So yes, I am sure the system is failing based on that. So what’s the answer?
To me, it’s participatory, liberated, inclusive co-creation of the alternative paradigm (sorry) of work.
And we can only do that if we loosen up the hierarchical “knowing” grip on control of the system and let it become something we all put right. Atom by atom if need be. Or some bigger waves of positive metamorphosis.
Hierarchies are creating greed. The big issue of our time. Greed is equated to pulverising our planet and burning, extracting and polluting it. To the inequity of wealth and power and the chances to live a prosperous, safe, inclusive and flourishing life. Greed comes from the hierarchy. Greed at the top for power, money and position.
Greed’s antidote is the dispersal of that power. And wealth. And chances and choices. My affirmation is that a self-managed system will give us that distribution. It’ll wrestle the control of the few, into shared control of the many. Not anarchic chaos. Deliberate shared ways to know, do and be that will lead us all, not be led by that untouchable someone.
It’s my affirmed assertion that we need a self-managed approach to work to save us all.
But this isn’t easy when we’re not in the controlling positions and have to wrestle it away from the incumbents stubbornly protected and leveraging it; and we actually aren’t that well versed in self-management, especially in our working lives.
How then do we become more familiar, confident and capable of self-managed ways of working?
We go through 3 stages of this that I’ve been through (is my lived experience and therefore go-to approach).
- Firstly, we know about self-management. We research, read, converse and take in what self-management is and how it differs from the conventional hierarchical model of work;
- Secondly, we do self-management. We experiment, test, apply, analyse, deduce, and keep doing self-managed ways of working.
And perhaps the epitome of it all;
- Being self-management. You become one with that system, its energies, its sensations, its models, practices and protocols that we assimilate, absorb and apply. Adapting, adjusting, accelerating. Testing, trying, tuning in to self-management. Sensing, sorting and sharpening how we are with self-management.
And in that, unlearning the orthodoxies of old. Detaching from the default of stratification. Becoming with the new systems.
How do you start to become a self-managed enterprise?
The (not trite) answer is to declare it. Intentionally set out the disassembly of the hierarchy. And that often comes from those higher up in that hierarchy. If not, it’s likely considered insubordination or revolt, but it can happen bottom-up, or middle-out.
But this declaration of intent is a vital first step after you’re committed to it as a mental model because of whatever reasons you can muster that validate — and assess — the strength and clarity in that declaration. These are all you’ll have at this moment. But they can be powerful, compelling visions of a better future. So don’t ignore that. Stories of the possibilities that connect with people in their emotional core. And might need some logical assimilation to make it more practically believable but that will come. If you believe in it (self-management).
You then need to become more comfortable with working out loud (HT John Stepper - more here), and with being open and inviting about things — and looking for those moments that matter. When things start to feel different and better.
Then you keep at it. Go through loops of;
- Revealing what matters and how to solve any discrepancies in that.
- Reinvigorating the sense of a compelling vision into self-directed activities so you can see if forming even in more abstract things like how people interact; what cultural symbols are representative; how decisions are made (that’s a big clue); and how performance is showing results that show the difference.
- Conscious activism, participation, galvanising, and discovery. Lots of thoughtful exchanges and energy sensations,
- Rehearsals, replaying, realigning of those things that you’re tackling in a different way, one at a time. Sequentially, in parallel, clustered, whatever form.
So that’s it, folks.
With renewed affirmation, and something I’ve been saying since 2010 probably, but 2012 certainly when I evacuated myself from the corporate machinery, self-managed systems of work are the future of work.
I asked DALL-E to represent this as an abstract, modern-art style concept and this is what it came back with.
I tried several ways to get it to represent self-management.
In the end, I settled for an Andy Warhol style of non-hierarchical work. This is its output.
So according to AI, this is called Worrkaphicy. So I asked Chat-GPT where that might have come from and this was its response
In this case, when you asked DALL-E to create an image of a non-hierarchical work system in the style of Andy Warhol, it generated an image along with the word “Worrkaphicy.” This generated word appears to be a creative combination of “work” and “graphic” in a playful and artistic manner. It doesn’t have a predefined meaning but is a result of DALL-E’s ability to generate imaginative and novel responses.
So AI was doing its best to be playful and artistic. AND to generate imaginative and novel responses.
When was the last time we said that about work? There’s an irony here folks. Machines are having more “fun and imagination” than we are.
Another reason why we need more self-managed systems. Programmed work isn’t resulting in playful and artistic, imaginative and novel responses. It needs reprogramming and it needs open-sourcing.
Work, in the future, needs self-management and I’m affirmed in that.
Double-down #affirmation based on the last 2 days and the last almost 20 years. Thank you Michelle Parry-Slater for that affirmation. And the team who worked with Michelle and me so openly, willingly and in an exploratory and self-managed way.
My affirmation in this is because of the many people I’ve come to admire and respect who are knowing, doing and BEING self-management.
So this post is with love and respect to Ricardo Semler and the Semco Style Institute; to Jos de Blok, Brendan Martin and Buurtzorg teams NL and GB&I; to Rich Sheridan and the Menlovians; to Samantha Slade and the Percolabs folks; to Matthew Gonnering and the Wideneers; to Matt Perez and Roberto Martinez and the Nearsoftians; Traci Fenton at WorldBlu; Paul Green Jnr and the folks at Morning Star; Nathan Donaldson and the squad at Boost NZ; Karin Tenelius and Lisa Gill at Tuff Leadership Training; Nick Christoforou and the crew at Neo; Tom Van Der Lubbe and the team at Viisi; Haluk Can Hur and the team at Latro Kimya; Erik Korsvik Ostergaard, David Marquet, Timm Urschinger, Dunia Reverter, Francois Knuchel, Aaron Dignan, Tom Nixon, Mark Eddleston, Barry McNeill, Mark Green, Lizzie Benton, Jon Barnes, Matt Ash, and many more already in the future. Saluté.
And mostly to the Transformers at People and Transformational HR Ltd.
As Pete Tong says, “We continue…” into the self-managed future of work.