Increasingly in organizations, teams are left to manage themselves. I encounter this often. As a consultant, I am invited to meetings in many organizations. And if the organization has hired me as their management consultant—you can bet that it’s an important meeting that will affect the overall performance of the organization. Yet all too often, when I sit down to meet with the management team, the team leader isn’t there. This almost always occurs at the last minute, because something “more important” has come up.
This situation puts the team in the position of having to guess what the manager’s intentions for the meeting were. The team knows what the change project is all about, but they don’t have the context from the manager to understand specifically which decisions were to be made, or how the team was meant to collaborate, or for exactly what the manager intended each of them to be accountable. The two or three hours we have together ends up being spent on consensus building and discussion, but never resolution, because the one individual who has the authority to make decisions isn’t there.
Situations like this occur all the time. What’s baffling to me is that organizations are intentionally replacing managers with self-managed teams. The mindset behind this trend is that self-managed teams provide members with the freedom and flexibility to be innovative and creative, which is of course an admirable goal. However, it’s far easier for teams to work effectively when they have a manager. Number five on our top twelve list of management fallacies is the fallacy that teams can manage themselves, and there are a number of reasons why this is the case.
1) Self-Managed Teams Are Inefficient
As my previous example illustrates, self-managed teams waste an enormous amount of time and resources in consensus building and discussion.
2) Self-Managed Teams Can’t Reach Effective Resolutions
Say there is a difference of opinion between two members of a self-managed team. Each individual is coming at the disagreement from their own point of view, given their place in the organization, likely with equally legitimate opinions. What often happens is that the team comes to a compromise that is equally unsatisfying to both parties. A manager, on the other hand, has a higher level of understanding of where the team needs to go to help advance the organization’s strategy, and has the authority make a decision one way or the other. A manager can understand both positions and choose the one that will benefit the company the most in the long run.
In general, it’s harder for self-managed teams to reach resolutions because they don’t have the higher level context and understanding of strategy that their manager would. A manger who has a clear understanding of the organization’s overall strategy can devise a plan for their team, and then set context for their direct reports. Without that context, it’s impossible for teams to reach effective resolutions.
3) Self-Managed Teams Lack Accountability
As important as it is for teams to have a clear common goal, they need to have an understanding of who is accountable for what. For every task, there should be a single point of accountability, or if it’s too much for one person, a framework for cross-functional accountability. Without a manager to delegate, accountability becomes ambiguous. Team members are more likely to focus on independent work and lose sight of common goals.
By leaving a team to manage itself, you are casting them adrift to figure things out for themselves, which of course they will do. As mature adults, they will be able to make decisions and move things forward somewhat, but at what cost to the organization? At a serious waste of time and resources, in terms of all of the back and forth, and at an even more serious cost in terms of reaching sub-optimal decisions, which may not even be consistent with the overall strategy of the organization. Though teams can and should collaborate, they need to have a leader who has the authority to make decisions, assign accountabilities, and set context and boundaries.