Lessons in growing a self organizing team

Late last year, in the cold Karen weather, we were in a management retreat discussing Twiga’s quarterly performance and what needed to be done to take the business to the next level.

Grant, the co-founder, and CEO of the business stood up to speak to his gathered managers. He said something paradoxical.

“If you want to succeed in this company, you must make yourself redundant”

The unexpressed question hanging over everyone’s head: Isn’t redundancy an unwanted ticket home?

But then I understood the paradox, if you are needed too much in your current position, you will never have the bandwidth to take on new challenges in the fast-growing organization.

I decided to risk it and work with the team I am part of, tech, to hone our self-organization skills. By this, I mean our ability to identify value creation opportunities within the business and act on it while at the same time remaining reliable in the delivery of committed objectives.

In this article, we will be discussing some of what we think works.

Master communication

A big part of managing is being a message broker. When the team is just you, communication is instantaneous, you make a decision, you act on the decision. When one other person is hired, you now must have a discussion with at least one other person before significant action. Once you get to 5 people, every other person must communicate with every other person meaning you now have 10 communication pathways.

As Richard Hackman points out:

“A colleague and I once did some research showing that as a team gets bigger, the number of links that need to be managed among members goes up at an accelerating, almost exponential rate. It’s managing the links between members that gets teams into trouble.”https://hbr.org/2009/05/why-teams-dont-work

More specifically, the formula for determining the number of links between members in a group: n(n-1)/2. Where n is the number of members.

The manager then acts by being the person everybody refers to, cutting the links back to a more manageable (n-1). Yet this is what we don’t want.

To solve for this, don’t waste time seeking consensus.

I am generally an agreeable person. Yet, I have come to find out if you put enough smart people in a room they are bound to disagree on important issues. Even worse, you will come to find none of them is demonstrably wrong.

In this environment getting everyone to agree is a waste of time, a more productive path is seeking buy-in.

You will come to find most smart people will support, even commit to an idea if they feel their own view has been given proper consideration.

So what you ask of them is not agreement but commitment.

Provide context and let the team figure it out

No one is promoted to a post where they manage others because they were incompetent at their jobs. Yet what makes you successful as an individual contributor is diametric to what makes you successful as a manager.

Think about the developer who is now the engineering manager. One of his developers is struggling to get a feature done, and the demo is in a few days. The manager knows if he rolls up his sleeves, he can get the work done this evening. He is not looking forward to embarrassing the team in front of the senior leadership, what should the manager do, continue waiting on the feature or get it done himself?

If you chose the latter option, don’t worry you are in the majority. The feature does get done, the powers that be are happy but the team has learned an insidious lesson when it gets tough, give the work to the boss.

The solution here is to appreciate just how much your job has changed now that you are the manager. Your work no longer entails getting things done; it’s now making peoples skills effective.

This shift in mindset means you will no longer experience the highs that come from getting a feature done, you now must find joy in the success of others.

You should now work hard to clearly illuminate the work that needs to be done, then step aside and watch as others find success in this path.

As the legendary Steve Jobs put it:

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

Find common purpose

Teams are formed for many reasons, the reasons, for the most part, get lost in time. There is no point in focusing on why the group was formed, at best this can help provide context, the team now must decide on its reason for being.

I have come to find smart people generally resist being told what to do. Yet they will passionately commit to what they have chosen to do.

Victor Frankl said:

In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

This illustrates then the difference between compliance and commitment. Compliance is what happens when the team does what you tell them to do, commitment is what happens when they do what they have chosen to do.

Your work is clear, let your team know what are your priorities, your posterities, what is going on in the business what are the emerging problems and then ask “Knowing all this, how do you think your contribution will be effective?”

How do you help your teams grow? Talk to me in the comment section below, my Linked in chenchajacob or my twitter @jchex