Self-management: takes centre stage! – The PeopleX Series Instalment 2

By Kirsten Buck

Self-management: takes centre stage!

A six minute interlude to your working day.


To truly learn you must often unlearn: a paradox we are open to experimenting with at PTHR.


We are specifically speaking about learning in a business context, and within the broad spectrum of business management, we are looking at leadership models. 


At PTHR we are a self-managed team, always have been, always will be. 


This means we are staunch and arduous ambassadors of a psychological contract between employee and organisation “leaders” whereby we have autonomy to shape our work within the guidance we are given. This guidance is not definitive in nature, but creates clarity in alignment with strategic direction. 


This organisational practice therefore willingly gives power to every team member so that authority is distributed, maximising individuals’ freedom at work whilst maintaining clarity of responsibility.


Self-managed teams are a collection of adults. All equal. And all enabled to add contributions and value.


We hereby declare that we see conventional leadership as being out of date, hierarchical, and paradoxically out of control when trying to be controlling. In this PeopleX instalment, we hope to place a spotlight on self-management as a way of being that challenges “leadership being out in front”. Self-management is fit for now, enabling and paradoxically, organised.


Harvard Professor, Michael Y Lee’s research on self-management suggests that working this way is fitting for the demands of an increasingly turbulent world. So we do hereby state that organisations that do not look to explore self-management, will, we argue, become irrelevant, obsolete. As younger generations look for autonomy to create at work.


(Mic-drop! But stay with us, our case for self-management has just begun).


We work with organisations across sectors (public, private, not for profit) of varying sizes, using alternative and unorthodox approaches to create new ways of working. This is done through organisational design and HR solutions that transform teams and the way they operate. The end goal is for people to flourish in their work and in doing so, create flourishing organisations. We must therefore be experimental in nature so the work we do with our clients is not an aspirational set of ideals but it is rather something we preach, practice and embody ourselves. Self-management applies.


Our curiosity is often twigged by the thinking and work of visionaries in the business arena. Ricardo Semler is undoubtedly one of our inspirations. In the 1980s, Ricardo transformed Brazilian manufacturing giant Semco, from a traditionally run operation to one where employee freedom and democracy were the norm. This shift in turn accelerated growth and profit. Putting people first is real profit, after all. 


Semler has undoubtedly shaped and inspired many progressive organisations on their self-management transformation. As part of maturing our self-managed team at PTHR, two of us are currently enrolled on Semco Style Institute’s (SSI) Expert Program, deepening our understanding of what it means to have a self-managed Semco Style; through pillars, principles and practices evidenced by Semler and colleagues’ work.


Yet many organisations have not heard of this way to create organisational change with the employee at the heart of decisions. 


(Backstage, turn up the volume on the mic!)


The time for self-management has never been more pressing: we all know about the overnight acceptance to remote working since the Covid pandemic thrust a new working model upon us. People now want to be more autonomous. We need to be trusted to get our jobs done. We need to be liberated. We need to see less micromanaging or parent-child relationships prevalent in teams and more space for creative innovation and growth.


A space for growth is not a worrying void, but a place for people at all levels to add value. During a recent keynote, Semler stated that organisations actually need fear of falling behind to make the change. Fear must have an overbearing presence to lead to there being the need to take risk. This risk of management and leadership “losing” control is, infact never as great as it is perceived.


There may also be fear in unlearning behaviours we have seen since we were children educated in school: where the parent/teacher-child relationship emerges. Semler’s Lumiar schools challenge this and put children at the core to make their own decisions. Part of re-learning is rewiring the synapses in our brains to enable healthy connections, but if better connections are formed in our education, the younger generations can be boundless in creative innovation. 


And these newly-wired connections to work in a more self-managed way are healthy, because they promote positive, enabling, collective behaviours such as participative democracy, peer-power and having-control-without-controlling; all of which are covered in depth in the SSI Expert Program.

Is this soundly like an arduous process, or a bridge too far to cross within the context of your organisation? Semler states that our ability to think out this (new) process is superior to our ability to roll it out. But that is OK. If the willingness to move to self-managed teams is in the hearts and minds of your people, and ideally your leaders, change can happen.


Furthermore, it depends on your mindset. Having a growth mindset is advantageous when looking at learning ways of being that seem unfamiliar. Think “journey” rather than process. And whilst on this journey, or even adventure, it is worth paying heed to Matthew Syed when he said:


“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”

Matthew Syed, Black Box Thinking

With a growth mindset being open to (un)learning things, coupled with the acceptance that mistakes by others have left knowledgeable individuals better informed than ourselves, the SSI Program has been one with enriching adaptive examples, intelligent insight and welcomed exchanges with a kind, candid and curious cohort.


Along with Semco, we at PTHR have taken inspiration from Buurtzorg, WL Gore and Menlo Innovations coupled with the thought leadership of writers such as Joseph Raelin and Frédéric Laloux. All who practice or endorse self management. 


Whilst paying heed to the success of organisations who have thrown the gauntlet to traditional top down styles is required, as is curiosity in abundance. To move to self-managed teams it is an (un)learning journey for both leaders and employees so trial and experimentation is encouraged. The SSI framework provides a plethora of practices that can be tested in a newly formed self-managed team. “Experiment” or “trial” can conjure images of mess and chaos but trust us, these practices are the antithesis. 


What the Semco Style Institute teaches us is that it’s about OUR style of self-management using principles and practices experienced and shared by others. The PTHR Style will always be how we describe our form of self-management and so should all others. Replicants, we are not. We have a collection of principles, pillars, practices and ways of being that work for us, at this moment in time. 


The PTHR team has built together:

  • ‘Team agreements’, making implicit agreements within our team explicit, and we review these seasonally to measure our commitment and even divergence from these. This shows peer power and accountability.
  • A ‘Stacks’ based operating model where each member of the team ‘owns’ at least one stack and is responsible for its direction (such as Products, Partnerships etc). This gives us guidance yet autonomy.
  • Our own individual ‘Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)’ that align with our own stacks, and our organisational strategy. Our individual value is clear.
  • A paired working model, or ‘business partnering’ as we call it, where we work closely with another team member, and handle appraisals and development for two seasons in the year (normally the key role of Line Managers replaced by peer feedback and support).


At PTHR we are a constant yet ever-evolving enterprise; taking cues from our audience and co-directing our next act(s). The SSI experience is supercharging how autonomous we are and we are proud to say we are conducting a bi-weekly experiment inspired by Semco Style. 


Alluding back to Semler’s reference to fear being required in organisations to make the risk to self-management seem plausible, we at PTHR have found that experiments that promote self-management are tried, tested, empowering, and safe. There is no fear of retribution in a style of management where people are not chastised, but rather, learn from a mistake. 


Work-life is a never ending journey of learning, learning to unlearn and in doing so discovering the extent to which there is still to grow. Self-management gives teams this space to be curious: let your team shape this space, don’t dictate it. Your results will be the encore.


(And in true management style, we pass the mic to you for democratic discussion, deliberation and open the floor to questions….)


(For more information on our self-managed practices, we invite you to one of our monthly PTHR Virtual Culture Tours. Contact team@pthr.co.uk for more information).