The Problem With Self-Managed Teams

Companies looking to increase efficiencies often consider self-managed or self-directed teams as a possible solution for fostering collaboration and cooperation among team members. The assumption is that fully autonomous work-groups function at higher levels when they have the autonomy to act as they see fit. The thinking is that staying out of the way and letting people work should lead to more productive teams and improved organizational performance. Unfortunately, my observation is that this is not the case, and there are some real problems with this assumption.

The mindset behind self-managed teams – giving members freedom and flexibility to be innovative and creative – is valid, but you must set up the appropriate framework and context for teams to be fruitful. If the context, authority and accountability is not clear, self-managed teams start doing things that from their perspective may be value adding, but are not consistent with the overall objectives of the organization and what the manager is trying to accomplish. With no single point of accountability and unclear context, self-directed teams are simply a waste of organizational resources.

Misguided Interpretation

In efforts to uncover a few institutional gems on how better to run our companies, many organizations have tried to emulate their perceptions of self-directed teams. Don’t get me wrong: with the right frameworks and the right measurement systems in place, teams can be very effective and are a necessary aspect of work life. But many organizations and their managers fail to see the most important reasons behind successful team work. In my experience, successful teams have very clear context and accountability frameworks for doing the work.

No Single Point of Accountability

In the modern organization, as is true in life, people simply need to work towards a common vision, and they need to know who is accountable for achieving that vision. Accountability is important for guiding behavior and ensuring things get done. But most importantly, it’s a single point of accountability that keeps things clear and in focus. With the common interpretation of self-managed teams, there is no single point of accountability, and as a result the outputs of the team have a minimal chance of being consistent with the manager’s desired direction. In fact, for every objective, one person needs to be accountable and in self-managed teams, this simply is not the case.

Lacking Cross Functional Accountability

It’s true: sometimes it’s too much for one person to be held accountable for everything as there are often multiple touch points for one project. If one person can’t do it alone, then there must be very clear cross-functional accountability and frameworks for how people will work together. In self-managed teams, there’s generally a lack of cross-functional accountability and as a result, ambiguity and uncertainty take the place of collaboration and mutual cooperation. What happens to the project? Without cross-functional accountability, people focus on independent work and lose sight of common goals.

Limited Context

Clear context, set by the manager for the work that needs to be done, is a must for sharing ideas, voicing concerns and making suggestions. In the popular interpretation of self-managed teams, limitations and uncertainties with respect to the context for doing the work often lead to redundancy, unclear guidance and poor decision-making. Decisions are frequently made by discussion and trade-offs as opposed to seeking guidance from a manager who would have an overview of the project and access to better information, resources and knowledge.

In my experience, self-managed teams are ineffective solutions for enhancing organizational performance. When accountability is clarified and shared across functions, positive outcomes are more likely. With no single point of accountability, a lack of cross-functional accountability and limited or ineffectual context, self-managed groups lose focus and fail to meet objectives. Rather, the manager must be accountable for the results of the team, set clear context for the work, delegate the accountability and authority that team members need to be successful in their work, and provide coaching and feedback. At that point, direct reports can take initiatives, use their judgment, and apply their full capability to achieve what is expected of them. Don’t leave results to chance, and don’t abdicate your critical role as a manager. You will have better results, and more productive, satisfied direct reports as well.