Self-Directed and Self-Managed Teams
by Mark M. Chatfield, P.E.
Vice President for Engineering Leadership
Interaction Research Institute, Inc.
4428 Rockcrest Drive
Fairfax, VA 22032

Much of the confusion about teams in the workplace has to do with loose definitions of terms. Let’s start off on the right foot by specifying what a few key words and phrases mean.

Work Group - A group of people working together - (Example - the mechanics in a Sears Auto Center)

Team - A group of people working together toward a common goal - (Example - The Denver Broncos)

Self-Managed Team - A group of people working together in their own ways toward a common goal which is defined outside the team - (Example - James River Corporation’s Kendallville Plant ALPHA team. They manufacture cardboard boxes as defined by executive leadership. Team does their own work scheduling, training, rewards and recognition, etc.)

Self-Directed Team - A group of people working together in their own ways toward a common goal which the team defines - (as above, but team also handles compensation, discipline, and acts as a profit center by defining its own future)

Before anyone would try to implement something as aggressive as a self-managed (and subsequently self-directed) team, they should know and be able to articulate the expected benefits. A mature self-managed team, when compared to typical hierarchical management, would have measured results showing:

More Less
Enthusiasm Individual opinion about what’s important
Learning from peers   Reliance on individual abilities
Comfort knowing help is there   Panic when workload peaks
Camaraderie   Backbiting
Shared responsibility   Protecting information
Focus on the organization   What’s in it for me?
Responsibility for the team   Stress on the "supervisor"
Simple, visible measurement   Feeling unaccomplished

Some of the lessons I have learned in implementing teams are summarized below:

  1. To create a team, a demand for performance is more important than team-building exercises. You can get a group together and train them in teamwork for weeks but they won’t be a team until they have a common understanding of the need to perform. First comes the strategic plan, then the tasks needed to carry out the plan, finally, teams are formed to do the tasks.
  2. Team basics are often overlooked. Team basics are: size, purpose, goals, skills, approach, and accountability.
  3. Teams at the top are the most difficult. Executives have complex, long-term challenges, heavy demands on their time, and they got where they are by being John Waynes.
  4. There’s no need to throw out the hierarchy. Teams are the best way to integrate across structural boundaries. They are the best way to design and energize core processes.
  5. Teams permit performance and learning at the same time. There is no better way to become a learning organization than to have a team-based structure which thrives on people learning from peers. The learning endures.

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