More and more companies are trying to implement self-management. But not everyone succeeds. What does it take to make it work? Andreas Flodström and Gustav Henman, founders of the Swedish-Ukrainian software development company Beetroot and Beetroot Academy IT education, share their experience creating an organization of 500 people based entirely on trust and self-management.
Eight years ago, when we founded Beetroot, self-management approaches were already gaining some traction internationally, but very few companies in Ukraine were moving in this direction (even in a fairly progressive IT sector). Now, however, self-management is becoming more and more of a trend. Perhaps our experience at Beetroot will inspire you to try experimenting with self-management in your organization.
Know where you stand before you start
Back in 2012, we were small, so experimenting and making decisions collectively was interesting and relatively easy. Our mindset from the start was very much based on trust and participation, rather than managerial consolidation of control.
When the company started to grow, we doubted we would be able to continue to work the same way. Adding a middle management layer was the accepted wisdom in Business school, but it didn’t feel right in practice. So we decided not to. Around that time we discovered Fredric Laloux’s inspiring book ‘Reinventing organizations’, and also participated in the Tuff Leadership Training program, both of which helped us find the inner support and knowledge to move forward without substantially changing our culture.
Whatever you read about self-management, it’s important to keep in mind that the literature is usually focused on processes, but we think successful self-management starts with culture and mindset. When you have the right culture in place, the processes come naturally as a consequence. Trying to create the culture starting from processes is hard.
Change your middle manager’s role
Usually, as an organization grows, middle managers are introduced to handle the increased complexity in information flows, syncing, and decision-making. At Beetroot, we dared to grow without adding a middle management layer. But if you already have and want to keep middle-managers in your company, we have some recommendations.
Because of the responsibilities middle managers are given, they tend to end up in powerful positions where they “define the reality” of people “below” them. You get a parent-child relationship. “Parents” (managers) are expected to have the right answer to any question. In fact, they often don’t. But the typical middle manager-parent allows no room for the “child” (subordinate) to take or feel any responsibility.
If instead, middle managers can work on limiting their responsibilities to syncing and coordination and start involving their entire teams more in decision-making and other managerial activities, a huge shift can be achieved with relatively small measures.
80% of staff buy-in
The easiest way to understand when something is blocking the rest of the work process is to ask your people and involve them in deciding what to change. Team consultation, though perhaps at first uncomfortable, is the most efficient way of overcoming blocks, even in a traditional organization. It’s precisely the difficult, unspoken stuff, the elephants in the room that are often responsible for creating unhealthy work environments. Openly addressing poor team relationships, speaking with an individual who unnecessarily blocks others’ ideas, or confronting a very dominant leader unable to listen — these are not easy things to do. But if you can start to talk about these things in a productive way, good things tend to happen.
If you involve everyone in decision-making, they start feeling valuable, opening up and showing initiative. Without buy-in from at least 80% of your staff, overcoming old issues is almost impossible. Give them the time and opportunity to be involved in change, and good results will follow.
You need to shift your own mindset too
It’s hard to start the transformation to self-management without having owners/founders who believe that it’s possible. But if you’re an owner/founder reading this article, you’re open to change, right? Let’s assume you are. The next step is to stop yourself from being the last word on every decision made in your company.
It’s natural that as an owner/founder you want to be involved in all sorts of processes. But to make self-management work, you need to learn how to let go and share responsibility with others. This is no small challenge, especially when you have the power and habit of determining every decision and process. But from our experience, this is exactly what you have to learn to do.
For us, leaders in a self-managed organization should represent and become ambassadors of the internal mechanisms and culture of the organization, acting as role models when it comes to building trust, leadership, listening, and giving feedback. It’s definitely not about being the only decision-maker.
It’s a direction, not a goal
Another important lesson we learned: the path to self-management is always a process, a direction for the organization, you pass through different stages of it each time you scale. Self-management is something you implement constantly, not something you can achieve once and consolidate for all the years to come.
This does not mean, however, that you cannot make estimates. The time taken for an organization to transition to self-management depends on many factors. For example, the greater the involvement of the entire team – from top managers to every single employee – the faster and easier the transition will occur.
But even if the first tangible effects of organizational change happen rapidly, real transformation can take years, depending on the culture and size of your organization.
Beetroot turned 8 in 2020. Today we are creating not just a company but an ecosystem of more than 500 people, 8 offices in two countries, and 16 Beetroot Academies in Ukraine and abroad. We are growing and changing, but we still believe, as we did in the beginning: the more you trust people, the better self-management works.