As keen advocates of flexible working, here at Breathe HQ we’re always looking to try new, modern ways of operating as a business.

My team of Partner Account Managers, now 6 strong (and growing), recently reached a point where they needed a slightly different way of working together. And, after lots of consideration, we decided to go down the route of trialling a self-managed team.

You might be wondering what a self-managed team is. Perhaps it’s a model you’ve never stumbled upon before – and I wouldn’t blame you.

So, in this article I’m going to cover what a self-managed team means, why we decided to test it, how we implemented it and – most importantly – what we've learned so far.

What is a self-managed team?

A self-managed team is one where, instead of having a line manager, the management tasks and responsibilities are shared out amongst team members. Often, employees’ strong points and specialist skills are harnessed, and tasks are divided accordingly. Self-managed teams plan and organise day-to-day tasks and activities among themselves with minimal or no supervision.

Why self-managed?

The idea first came about when we realised our team of account managers was growing rapidly, but the team were still operating at exactly the same level. It had reached the point where a line manager was needed, but I didn’t want to risk promoting one of the team over the others and cause disappointment, demotivation and a slump in engagement. So, we explored other options and, when I discovered self-managed teams, I decided to look into the idea further.

Early days: how did we introduce a self-managed team?

Research

To find out exactly what a self-managed team involved, I got cracking with some initial research. My findings included a super-informative TED talk by Helen Sanderson, some related articles as well as books on Employee Operating Systems (EOS). So far, so good.

I then reached out to well-known HR professional, Perry Timms, who has a wealth of experience in introducing autonomous team-working in organisations.

Finally, I worked with our Head of People, Suzie, to collate a long list of tasks I would typically delegate to a line manager. This included:

  • Holiday approval
  • Leadership/ setting direction for the team
  • Managing meetings

Once I was happy with my research, it was time to open it up to the team.

Group discussion and delegation

I took the team off-site and we spent the day with Perry Timms. During the morning, I introduced the idea of having a self-managed team and used the opportunity to inspire the team, showed them how it would work and answered any of their questions. We then spent some time putting together a mission statement for the team.

We then spent the afternoon going through the list of tasks Suzie and I had put together. We harnessed key strengths and specialisms within the team, assigning people to the following tasks accordingly:

  • Holiday/ expense approval (e.g. if one person was assigned holiday and the someone else expenses, they would approve each other’s requests)
  • Approving discounts
  • Communication within the team
  • Ensuring meetings are smooth and structured
  • Dealing with disagreements/conflict within the team
  • Ensuring I’m kept in the loop where necessary
  • Communicating to other teams within the business on various subjects, when needed

Considering appraisals

I know what you’re thinking. How on earth are we handling appraisals?

Well, I started off by asking the team to do a quick, ‘360 degree’ appraisal of each other to contribute to their overall appraisal with me.

They did a fantastic job of answering the questions, despite it being challenging for some to give constructive criticism to their team-mates.

I was pleased with how it went, and next time I may even consider bringing them closer to doing each other’s appraisals.

Review

After 6 weeks of running as a self-managed team, we took another day out with Perry to review how things were going. We reviewed what was going well and what we could work on. We took some time to practice some techniques to help us run meetings seamlessly and productively.

Learn how Breathe can help you build a successful, agile team

So, what have we found?

I’ll be honest – I thought it would be like jumping off a cliff. But it couldn’t have been more different. Making the transition into a self-managed team has been revolutionary and it felt so natural.

But, like anything, it's had its cons as well as it’s pros. Here are the biggest benefits, as well as some draw-backs and extra considerations that we've taken on board along the way.

Benefits

  • The team have really enjoyed having the extra responsibility and have come together to form a really strong team.
  • It’s been a great opportunity to make the most of the key skills and strengths within the team. Each person has taken on tasks that they're good at, passionate about and enjoy doing, so if nothing else it has added value to their roles.
  • Handing over managerial tasks means that the team are growing and progressing in their roles - which it was clear they were ready to do.
  • It has taken a great deal of managerial weight off my shoulders.
  • Being self-managed adds an extra challenge to the roles within the team. Each time I pass a question to them, they think in a way they perhaps haven’t before.
  • Delegating manager responsibilities means that it gives people a taste of a managerial role, helping them to decide whether or not they’d like to manage others in the future.

Important things to consider

  • I’ve realised the importance of leaving the team to it and avoiding jumping in with answers. When they put their heads together to solve a problem, an effective solution is found quickly. If they get stuck, it’s my responsibility to help them, provide suggestions and point them in the right direction - but it’s crucial I don’t jump in and solve the problem for them.
  • The rest of the business needs to be 100% clear on how our self-managed team operates and who they need to approach for certain queries.
  • Depending on the team’s qualities, it can be easy for one character to dominate the rest. It’s important that the team draws together equally and everyone has their say.
  • How will new members fit in as the team expands? This is something we'll need to think about going forward.
  • Some of the team who may have been hoping for a promotion to a managerial position could now be wondering how they can progress. As we move forward, we’ll need to discuss extra responsibilities, along with other ways they can grow in order to be seen for progression opportunities throughout the company.

Overall, despite it being a huge leap of faith, moving into a self-managed team has been a transformative step in our team growth. It’s really engaged the team and given them new, positive challenges to tackle in their day-to-day roles.

We’ll continue to review our progress and identify room for improvement while our self-managed team is in its trial phase. Watch this space for further updates.

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