TechRepublic columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. He shares his tips on a host of project management issues in this Q&A format.

I remember a lot of information being published in the eighties and early nineties about self-managed teams. At that time, I was a team member and didn’t have much say as to what was going on in the organization. Now I am a manager and have an opportunity to try new things. However, I don’t see much information on self-managed teams anymore. Was the idea discredited or is it still relevant today?

Good question. I have long been a believer in self-managed teams. In the early nineties, I started a couple of these types of teams, and in the mid-nineties, I actually was a part of such a team for a year and a half. My experience left me with the general perception that these types of teams are not easy to establish, but they are very productive once they get going.

First, a little background
When people work on a team, they can become more motivated and enthusiastic, develop new ideas to improve group performance, and assume greater responsibility in putting these plans into action.

Self-managed teams are a specific type of team that maintains a high degree of collaboration, and manages itself, with the goal of becoming a very high-performing team. In self-managed teams, trust grows among the team members as work progresses, and they become motivated to accept more difficult challenges. The focus in these types of groups is on performance, as well as on teamwork. Their success requires strong personal and company commitment, skills development, and support from team members and management.

All self-managed teams need training to prepare them to work in this new paradigm. A very common mistake is to throw people into a self-managed environment without adequate preparation. This results in chaos, frustration, and paralysis. The best time to offer training is when the team is initially being formed, and then on an ongoing basis when the team encounters situations it can’t handle. The initial training should give the team a good start, but the company should be prepared to offer ongoing training as it is required.

Of course, the team can’t be trained in every possible contingency. One of the objectives of a self-managed team is that its members be flexible enough to resolve unforeseen problems when they occur. No amount of training and planning can bring perfect results. Unforeseen problems will certainly arise, and the team must be prepared to invest adequate resources and energy to work through all impediments.

Coaches replace supervisors
When companies implement self-managed teams, they shift their focus from the concept of “supervisors” to “coaches.” While a supervisor’s role is to make decisions and instruct team members in how to tackle any situation, the role of a coach is to guide team members and help them improve their decision-making skills through experience. Thus, the skills expected of coaches are quite different from those of supervisors. Their responsibilities shift from getting work done to developing the capabilities of team members. This is done by encouraging discussions, asking questions, and providing explanations to raise the team’s level of thinking.

Where are self-managed teams today?
You’re right about not seeing much in the literature today about self-managed teams. It seemed like it was a bigger idea 10 years ago.

However, perhaps it’s mostly the name that isn’t being written about. I actually have seen quite a bit of literature about teams with many of the same characteristics as self-managed teams. However, they’re called Agile teams. These are mostly IT software development teams that follow Agile, “light,” and/or “extreme” development concepts.

Agile teams were initially defined in the 12 principles of the Agile Alliance. Three of the original 12 basic principles of the Agile Alliance describe these types of teams as follows.

  • Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  • The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
  • At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

These three principles (along with similar concepts from Extreme Programming, Scrum, and other light methodologies) have set the stage for a variety of additional discussion that has expanded and extended the concepts of the self-organizing “Agile” teams.

The name “self-managed team” may not be as popular today, but the concept is still a good one. My experience working on this type of team was that it was more productive than any other team that I’ve worked on. In fact, many of the team members stated that our weekly meeting and ongoing interaction was the only thing that kept them going during some very difficult times.

This model has been further promoted as the basis for many of the light development methodologies you read about today. Self-managed teams don’t necessarily arise by accident. You need to invest training and coaching into helping these types of teams reach their high performance states. However, once they gain traction, self-managed teams are a wonder to observe and can become much more productive than the sum of all the individual members.

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Discover the secrets to IT leadership success with these tips on project management, budgets, and dealing with day-to-day challenges. Delivered Tuesdays and Thursdays