S3 #22 Building high-performing, self-organizing digital teams

S3 #22 Building high-performing, self-organizing digital teams

S3 #22 Building high-performing, self-organizing digital teams

Jonathan Lewis

Jonathan Lewis

Jonathan specializes in self-organizing teams, evolving cultures, authentic leadership, and peer learning. He blends his experience as a leader, group facilitator, organization designer, and scrum master to create contexts for growth. His work has seen him lead teams into agile working, create major shifts in organizational culture, and run peer-learning communities across the US and Europe.

Consider granting your digital marketing team a higher degree of autonomy without committing to a radical organizational model in an “all-in” fashion because it can make you nimbler and more competitive. By adopting a self-organizing team model, you can free up workers to share the responsibility of planning and executing their work without the supervision of a manager. Team members can take ownership of their workflow, processes, schedules, roles, and more to drive work. Jonathan Lewis discusses how this works best in organizations and positively impacts teams and the business bottom line.

self-governing teams, self-organizing teams, self-driven work, governance
Episode number:
Date Published:
December 15, 2022

[00:00:00] KRISTINA PODNAR, host: At the simplest level, a self-organizing team does not depend on or wait for a manager to assign work. Instead, these teams find their work and manage the associated responsibilities and timelines. That, again, is the simplest of levels. It can be so much more complex. That's why we're going to be talking about this topic today.

[00:00:20] INTRO: Welcome to The Power of Digital Policy, a show that helps digital marketers, online communications directors, and others throughout the organization balance out risks and opportunities created by using digital channels. Here's your host, Kristina Podnar.

[00:00:37] KRISTINA: Welcome back to the Power of Digital Policy. So good to have you here today. I'm really excited to announce that Jonathan Lewis, my colleague, and, I feel like you're more of a friend now, is with us today. He specializes in self-organizing teams, evolving cultures, authentic leadership, and peer learning. We're going to learn what all of those things are. He also blends this experience as a leader, group facilitator, organization designer, and scrum master to create a context for growth. Jonathan is known for enabling learning communities in the US and in Europe, so he is got lots of perspectives on culture as well. I'm so excited that you're here. Thanks for coming, Jonathan.

[00:01:14] JONATHAN LEWIS, guest: Thanks so much for having me.

[00:01:17] KRISTINA: I talk to a lot of different people, and every so often, I throw out the term self-organizing teams as if I know what I'm talking about. I don't. What are self-organizing teams or self-organizing cultures? What are we talking about?

[00:01:31] JONATHAN: That's a really good question. Thank you. If we take a typical team lead role and split that person's duties into two things of leadership and management. What we're doing is we're taking the management aspects of that and then bringing the team into the place where they're doing, taking that on themselves basically. So it takes a bit of extra effort that people might not expect in order for them to take on some of those managerial things. Learn to coordinate with each other, handle conflict, and make decisions together. So there's a load to it in terms of like overhead, and over time as people normalize it, it becomes quite intuitive. But to begin with, it's a bit of a hurdle to getting that. But that's, that's the simplest way I can put it in terms of taking that management role and then dispersing that throughout the team.

[00:02:21] KRISTINA: So the word anarchy comes to mind. Is that what happens when you disperse that? Is it sort of a free for all? Or what happens when there's no hierarchy?

[00:02:28] JONATHAN: So there is always a hierarchy, actually, and it's actually a different form of hierarchy. So this is more hierarchy based around knowledge and experience and expertise rather than just a generalized power over people. But it's more complex. So you have different leaders in different subject areas. Is it anarchy? I think most people think of anarchy as some sort of disorder and people just being motivated by their own interests. I think anarchists would probably say it's not that, but in terms of the general way we use it, it, yes. So I think there's a lot of self-regulating that people do as soon as we leave the office or outside of our work roles. Nobody tells us where to live or whom to spend time with, or what clubs to join. We manage to organize ourselves around those things. And even at the very smallest level, in any role, we have to decide what order to do tasks in no matter what, what level of seniority or, you know, if it's our first day. We still have to decide how we structure something on a page or write that email. So there's always a level of autonomy, and we're just talking about what degree of autonomy we're giving people. So yes, it's not anarchy, and there are a lot of beautiful structures and habits and patterns that you can bring into a team that allows them to coordinate and resolve. Resolve disputes and or process tensions together, but also meet each other's needs and the needs of the overall group. And it's often that interplay between the needs of the individual and the group where the fun is. And that plays out in any team, even if you have a formal hierarchy. But particularly in our self-organized team. Meeting our own needs to get our own work done, and also the needs of the team and the needs of specific others in the team. That's the skill that needs to be learned. And it's to be done peer to peer rather than via a leader or individual manager.

[00:04:22] KRISTINA: Is there a certain type of organization or culture or maybe, is there an appropriate time when you advise using a self-organizing team or self-organizing principles?

[00:04:35] JONATHAN: I think people tend to think of highly complex, uncertain environments to be well suited to self-organizing. So putting into control where the information is the idea. So it's actually impossible for one person in a place of leadership to process and understand everything. So you'll see this obviously with principles like Agile, where self-organizing is a key facet. I've also run self-organizing marketing and sales teams. And I've read some great case studies of people doing it in nursing and also in warehouse environments. So yes, it doesn't feel like there are clear places where it would never work to a degree. It's this question: How much do you want to put in place? And there are examples in place in highly regulated fields where they do have levels of self-organizing coupled with very formal hierarchies around people who are certified in certain things around safety. And so that, that will be very formal. And they feel that's necessary. I actually see self-organizing as something that brings its own challenges as well. It's not the panacea; it is, there are a lot of people things need to work through. And it is very challenging. I've seen whole teams go down this route, find it very difficult, and not want to go back to if more pyramid-type style structure, even though there are those challenges with it. I would say that more formal, hierarchical process or model. It works really well if you have a leader who is really on it, really experienced, has a lot of deep self-awareness, and they're relationship to power is really healthy. You can actually get a lot done with somebody, you know, concentrating so much on one person. We just don't have enough of those people around generally to make that structure work in a scale. So that's where I see the benefit of self organizing, but I don't think it's the panacea for everything all the time.

[00:06:29] KRISTINA: You're excellent at coaching people in this model, and there's something great about having a coach or somebody who can enable and support you through going in this direction. Does every organization need a coach to do that, or can they self-organize themselves? If I'm a listener listening to you today, my first thought is like, is this something Jon I can just go off and do on my own? Or should I really try and get a coach or somebody to come in and advise us about this?

[00:06:55] JONATHAN: Yes to both really. You, can do it on your own and read an experiment and you don't have to start that big. In fact, I would advise you not to do that. I would look at bringing something in. Here's a simple, simple but really powerful tool, which is called the advice process. And so this is something you can trial, and I'd say yeah, try it in a team for a week. And the, way it works is, Anyone can make any decision as long as they have spoken to people meaningfully affected by it, and people with expertise in the matter. So what's really important about those two things is that the people meaningfully affected are meaningfully affected. Not just affected, but meaningfully affected, and then somebody with expertise in a matter. So it's not done to any ignorance, but let's say I needed to make a decision. And the decision is where to have, I dunno, Christmas dinner or something like that. Something very simple. I could talk, but I'd never done it before. I could talk to people meaningfully affected, well actually, that's everybody. who's going to go? And then somebody who's got expertise in the matter. So whoever's done it in previous years, I'd want to hear their view. But the key here is that if I'm making that decision, I don't have to follow the advice I receive from people. And it's quite a powerful point because if say everybody, we expect everybody, meaning everybody meaningfully affected. and they want to do one thing, but the person with expertise in the matter wants to go back to a venue that we've been to for years. But actually, I can, I can ignore their advice, and their advice is just advice. And I can then make my own discernment as to where we go. And it's self-regulation in this, in that I also know that if I ignore everybody's wishes, I want to be, I want to be respected by these people. And I want to be in connection with them and care about their experience and those sorts of things. And so it's, it is quite a powerful tool actually, the advice process in that you can devolve a lot of authority into a group, and they also own the decisions they make because they're hearing the advice, but they still own it. It takes a bit of practice actually. But you can run that as an experiment for just a week or something like that in a team and see how that plays out. Or get coaching. Absolutely. There are people out there, I'm one of them, who can support teams through this process and maybe who have gone through that process of falling totally in love with it and then seeing its pitfalls and then seeing how it actually plays out in reality. That is quite a journey, and it can take some time. But it's quite a, quite fascinating one.

[00:09:37] KRISTINA: I've been thinking about this a lot lately because I had the opportunity to interact with you in a situation where you described to me what it might be like to have a group of individuals go through a self-organizing hour and a half. I think it was a 90-minute session. And I love this idea because the entire goal would be to get input from subject matter experts who are experts in their own right. But I thought it was interesting. And also it was very scary, I think, for them at the same time, to have 90 minutes together that weren't highly regulated, highly prescriptive, highly structured upfront, and to allow the group to come to the table and be driving their destiny for these 90 minutes, I thought that was interesting. There was a mixed reaction, right? Some people were scared, I think, of doing this. Some people were excited about it. But one of the things I thought was great is somebody said that they felt like they invested 90 minutes of their time that wasn't wasted. So, I think that there's like this sense of like ownership or authority may be over how you're spending time or having input. And even if you don't get to do everything you want to do or how you do it, I think there's somehow a feeling of empowerment that we don't necessarily get in a traditional structure.

[00:10:57] JONATHAN: Yeah, that's beautifully put. Thank you. I, I think one of the habits we're in culturally speaking in, certainly in corporate spaces, is allowing our attention to be dominated by somebody who doesn't give us the respect that it deserves. Just people who are ill-prepared for running meetings are a really good example. They've invited you or demanded in some form that you need to sit there and give them attention, and they haven't prepared very well or haven't thought about your experience. And so you are sitting there completely going at the pace of them thinking something through, and it doesn't feel useful. It actually feels painful, and it feels disrespectful to use that word quite deliberately. And so, in an environment where you can follow your own level of connection with what's needed to be addressed, that sounds a bit fluffy. I can give a more concrete example of that in a moment if you wish. But in where you self-organize around what are the topics you want to discuss and you have a stake in it, and if you don't want to discuss that topic, you can move into a different virtual space or physical space and talk about something that you do care about. So you are meaningfully connected with everything that is being discussed at that moment and what's important to you. And then you see that perhaps in a traditional use of that time, somebody who's brought a meeting together, it's just around what they want to talk about or who's the loudest voice or who's the most senior, and all of those tropes that we all know about. And instead, it's no matter what your rank or experience, you're connected with everything that's being discussed. It's a very liberating moment and a bit unnerving because you have to, yep, self-organized. And that's I use the word liberating there, and this is the difference that the name given to a whole suite of these processes is liberating structures. So if you think most of the time, the structures are there to get from humans the specific outcome. So whether it's a decision or certain topics discussed, and it is pretty controlling most of the time and liberating structures answer the question, what is the minimum amount of facilitation that's needed in order to get the results we need from these people together? What's the minimum? And then rely on the human capacity to self-organize around topics in order to get wisdom from the groups.

[00:13:15] KRISTINA: Are you seeing that maybe liberating structures are more welcomed these days? You know, in post Covid era? Do you see a shift in cultures and where we are? Because I don't know if I'm reading into this, but it feels like working with several different clients. There's a little bit more tolerance for self-organizing and liberating structures and really leaving it up to people to maybe define what's needed and what's appropriate. And it could be that I just imagine that freedom, but it does seem, and I wouldn't say it's a hundred percent there, but it's a lot more than pre covid.

[00:13:52] JONATHAN: Yeah. What I've seen is people letting go of control. Okay. So in noticing that it makes very, they've been controlling things they didn't need to, and perhaps that's what you're speaking to there, where people have, maybe when they're working from home, they're less formal. I see more hoodies being worn by quite senior people, and it's lovely, and you see their pets and those sorts of things. And then you notice, actually. Okay. We still got the conversation done that we needed to, and we didn't need all of that formality. And I love this question, what are we controlling that we don't need to? I'm somebody who fidgets a lot, and I do it to help me concentrate. So whenever I invite people into a meeting, I do it. I say, if you need to move around in order to focus, don't just stare at the screen if it's virtual or in person. Don't sit down and pretend to be focusing if you're not if you need to get up and move around or fidget with something. Do it; that's fine. And at first, I might feel a bit unsettling or disturbing to people because they're so used to everybody being so quiet and sitting still. And then, after a while, it's just normal because that's actually how humans are all the time; we do manage to focus on conversations in a cafe around children. We do manage it. Etiquette is possible with more things going on, and so I think about how we control our eyes. We control our breathing. Nobody can do big sizes or stretch their bodies. We can't stretch, and those sorts of things. And some of those, yeah, maybe somebody dancing in the corner might be too distracting. Okay. But actually, maybe it isn't for some teams, and maybe that's fine. It's questioning all of these assumptions we bring in about how much we regulate our bodies and how we pretend to focus often, even if we're not. And also, breaking more as meaningful is breaking the taboo of pretending that we've understood when we haven't. Making it okay to say, I'm sorry, I didn't catch that. And making that Okay. As well. Just breaking some of these unwritten rules, which are culture, right? Yeah. And bringing people into that space of more humanness, for want of a better word. Yeah.

[00:15:57] KRISTINA: So is it a case that when you have self-organizing teams, or even if you're creating a culture of self-organizing or liberating structures, does it have to involve everybody, or can it be, you know, it involves three-quarters of a team or some people are just going to be, doing their self-organizing. Can you self-organize if you're a team of one, Jon, that's what I want to know?

[00:16:22] JONATHAN: By definition, you're self organizing, right? If you're one and I've known people who are just two of them run use, use holacracy as their operating model and that's, that's quite a heavy process to go through for just two people, but it, they're also romantically partnered as well. So I think it probably really supports their way of actually decision making and processing tensions and those sorts of things so it doesn't bleed into the re rest of the relationship. Right. So that's a talking very, very small scale. Would I, would I see it, how would I see it playing out in a team where you have some people self organizing and some people less, so Yeah, I think it's, it's doable. Yeah. I don't, I, because I, my, I guess my point is it's always there anyway, right? Some people are more autonomous, some people need more direction, when I think about teams going on the journey, I actually think it has a lot more to do with the person who has the formal authority and the work they're doing than it has the team itself because humans have this innate capacity to self-organize anyway. You can assume it's there. Some people just don't want to. They see work as a place where they are told what to do. So then if they can do it and they feel safe because then no one can tell 'em off and they get paid, and they go home. And if they've been hired with that psychological contract, it feels unfair on them to suddenly push a different way of working on them without their agreement. And so I'll just name that, right? It, it, it is important to show respect to people who just don't want to go on that journey. And maybe they leave, maybe they go into a separate team, but they shouldn't be judged for it because it's absolutely, the standard way of working is you're told what to do,

[00:18:04] KRISTINA: That's horrible. You know? Well, okay, that's a judgment, right? That's a judgment. I think it's horrible, but maybe somebody thinks that's wonderful.

[00:18:12] JONATHAN: Yeah, maybe. Yeah, exactly. I think it's unnecessary that it's the standard. I think that's probably the point I'd want to make. And there's a lot of just casual use of power over people that I remember coming into being a line manager for the first time, these people I've worked with, and good friends, suddenly I have authority over when they can take annual leave or like I can say no to them wanting family leaves. And I found that a really bizarre power to have in somebody's life. Or they know I could say I had the authority to say no to their request for annual leave. And I found that bizarre because they understand the work; they understand their family needs. Why aren't they the ones making the decision? And that was one of the first things I actually devolved in terms of authority. We actually used the advice process. When somebody wants to take annual leave, they ask people meaningfully affected by that. And somebody with expertise, probably from HR or something like that. And, and make the decision themselves because, from my point of view, I didn't know enough. I wasn't involved in their work, and I certainly don't know enough about their private life to understand the balance. So it's, it's this generalized power that I probably get most irritated, irritated by my as personality. I just find it odd. Yes, so. However it is, it is the norm. And so if people want to work in that environment I think, it needs to be misunderstood and respected that's a reasonable starting point for somebody. And if they don't want to change, they don't have to. But maybe that's, that's it's not that they stay in the team, you know, that might be the reality of it, but that needs to be clear as well, that this is the direction of travel. If it is, then they get a chance to make a choice.

[00:19:47] KRISTINA: Are there specific tools or technologies that help teams go in this mode? Because I'm thinking about folks, who might enjoy working in the morning, like their early words. Like I love getting up. If I could work all the time at like five in the morning, I would be the happiest human being. In the world, but asked me to join a meeting at seven o'clock at night, and I'm like, are you nuts? Are you crazy? Like that like is not a good thing. Whereas I have colleagues who don't talk to me before nine 30 and I do really well coming in later in the day, and I love to be at work at seven o'clock. It's like when I'm most productive. And one of the things I always wonder is why can't we all work when we want to work, like why do you have to come to work and start working at eight o'clock in the morning if you're not fully awake yet if that's not when you're most optimal, or why can't I start working at 5:00 AM because that's when I'm most productive, but, it feels like we can take technology and tools maybe and bridge that gap, right? If we have a certain amount of artificial intelligence tools that gather insights, for example, and shares that between the morning workers and the afternoon workers, et cetera, we can bridge that and allow sort of liberating structures and people to work in the most appropriate way. So, are you running into a scenario where you're seeing more of those types of tools and more of the opportunity to be in this environment where we're working on things at an appropriate time, at an appropriate priority level, et cetera, that makes sense not just for us as individuals, but also for organizations?

[00:21:19] JONATHAN: So I'll give this answer in two parts. I think I'll answer your technology question first. I think asynchronous communication's really important. So anything like Slack or Teams where you can chat, and then obviously in a development world, there's a lot more technical tools where you don't need to be there in real-time, and you can submit something for somebody to review. Making sure that people feel really comfortable working in that way and that they understand the tool. And also that there are agreements that if somebody sends you a message, you don't need to reply straight away. And if you don't reply straight away, the assumption is that you didn't reply for a good reason. And it might be you're asleep, it might be you're in a meeting, or it might be you're having a cup of tea or whatever it is. But it's a good reason, a good enough reason. And so some of it's about setting expectations, and that's probably the second part of my answer. Giving people freedom or autonomy around the edges, like where they need to make decisions for themselves is really, really powerful. So when you talk about that team dynamic where you might have people in different time zones or just put all in the same time zone, but very different needs, it's that dynamic again, of the individual need or the need of the team. And also, I'd add the need of the end-user or customer. So generally, these things work out if you leave it to the team and give them the tools and capacities between them to negotiate and live up to the agreements with each other. If you have a centralized person or team saying, okay, this is the policy across the whole organization about how we work, then at the fringes, there's going to be so many people whose needs aren't met by that unnecessarily. Yeah. So they have to be in at a certain time and it really causes problems with their pets or home life or children or sleep cycles or when they can focus best. But it makes sense centrally to make this policy because I, we know when everybody is, and they can be available for meetings and so on, and this interplay of centralized decision making or decentralized decision making is kind of key to all of this. And it's not always one or the other is the answer, but we're focusing on the decentralized question here. And so I've worked with teams where, yeah, they've had very detailed, odd working arrangements between them. I and I were technically line-managing them all. And I say technically, I wasn't their day-to-day involved in the work. And I, yeah, I don't think I would really understand how they coordinate between them in terms of like how they make these agreements work between them, because they have all of these detailed reasons that as long as they all agreed to it and understood the impact on each other, they could make it work. They know best, basically, how to balance these things and if there's a customer need. So there is an expectation externally that there will be people available between these hours. That needs to be covered and factored in as well. As long as people agree to factor that in between them, yeah, you can do it and, and distribute that authority for people to, to get on with it.

[00:24:21] KRISTINA: I so appreciate this. It always warms my heart to think about these different structures and ways for people to work. It can be a little bit unnerving, I think, or hard to get your head around it if you've been stuck in other ways of working. But I think it opens up so many new opportunities. And I think maybe more efficient, effective ways of working, which is exciting.

[00:24:46] JONATHAN: Absolutely. I think is it it's effective I think in business as usual. And I want to contrast that with an exception because I think people like to test these ideas, right? What about the extremes? And I touched on this earlier, but when we talk about centralized or decentralized decision-making, there are moments when time-critical things need centralizing. So if there is a crisis or an emergency, It can make sense with that to decentralize for a time authority and then hand it back again afterward. And that needs to be done, agreed beforehand, this is how it happens, and this is, and also follow the agreement of redistributing the authority again afterward. Otherwise, you'll lose trust with people once it's been taken from them. But you can imagine if there is a natural disaster, for instance, you might want to centralize and have that meta view across everything. And then once you've distributed the people to each area you want to give them autonomy to make decisions on the ground and not constantly have to call back to head office. And so you need this play sometimes between those two principles. And sometimes, I think we end up with a horrible middling compromise that says it doesn't serve us either way. And so it's about being conscious of how we distribute authority or centralize it and doing it on purpose and following the agreements.

[00:26:12] KRISTINA: That's a wonderful way to end the conversation today, right? Think about being mindful in terms of how you're distributing authority. Make sure that you understand your options, so we're not just working status quo, because that's how we've always done it. And as you're thinking about self-organizing, or I like the liberating structures approach more, to be honest with you, that's something I'm going to adopt going forward. Just recognize that there are different options. Don't be stuck in ways of working because that's how you've been working historically. And recognize that certain things make sense when you're creating policies, but in other ways, they may not. And strike that balance that's appropriate for you and for, your team, and your organization.

[00:26:53] JONATHAN: And I just want to add, this is all still governance. It's all still governance. It just looks different and feels different. So, for people who like policy and governance, it's still there. It's just a different flavor.

[00:27:03] KRISTINA: I'm so happy you said the G word. I was trying to refrain. Thanks so much for hanging out with us today. It was great talking to you, and I hope that other folks listening find much value in today's conversation. Thank you for your time, Jonathan.

[00:27:20] INTRO: Thank you for joining the Power of Digital Policy; to sign up for our newsletter, get access to policy checklists, detailed information on policies, and other helpful resources, head over to the power of digital policy.com. If you get a moment, please leave a review on iTunes to help your digital colleagues find out about the podcast.

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