A People Management Perspective on Self-Managing Teams

At Atomic, we describe our project teams as self-managing. I recently read The One Thing You Need to Know…About Great Managing, Great Leading and Sustained Individual Success with a group of others at Atomic. The book got me thinking more about that description of our teams and some different perspectives on self-management.

What do we mean by calling our teams self-managing?

Historical Perspective at Atomic

My initial perspective on the concept of self-managing teams was formed over six years ago when a poster-sized description of our team model was hung on our snack table:

Poly-skilled, co-located, self-managing, teams of makers.

Since it was posted on the snack table, a critical focal point of our office, I read that phrase a lot. It was an important part of how I viewed our teams and echoed the environment of autonomy and personal responsibility that I had come to value at Atomic.

What I understood was that, when a team of makers assembled for a project, they took responsibility for:

  • Managing our side of the project – the budget, estimates, and backlog
  • Determining how we work on a daily basis – our hours in the office, where we sit
  • Defining technical practices that fit the team – pairing, testing
  • Interacting directly with our clients to make decisions that affect the project

Six years later, those are all still important, highly-valued aspects of our self-managing teams. Our model for success is still rooted in assembling an excellent team for a client project and then giving them the responsibility and authority to make it successful. And it still achieves great results for our clients.

The “One Thing” Perspective on Management

Reading The One Thing You Need to Know made me look at this statement from a new perspective. In the book, Marcus Buckingham names the one thing you need to know about great managing:

Discover what is unique about each person and capitalize on it

Interesting. That’s not directly reflected in my earlier description of a self-managing team. Not that we ignore individual strengths on our project teams—among other things, it’s a consideration when the team chooses pairs and assigns work during sprint planning. But I think I’d like to see that idea reflected more strongly in my definition of a self-managing team.

Most of the examples in the book involve an individual manager recognizing the unique strengths of a specific team member and arranging responsibilities to take advantage of that. With our team model, I expect our examples would involve a more diverse set of players on the team working together to identify and make use of individual strengths. What would it look like to have a whole team doing that?

  • Individuals recognize and take advantage of opportunities to play to another team member’s unique strengths.
  • Team members voice their appreciation of other individuals’ unique attributes and share insights with the rest of the team.
  • Responsibilities may not strictly follow job titles as the team makes changes to capitalize on unique strengths.
  • Individuals understand their own strengths and weaknesses and advocate for changes to make better use of their skills.

I can see a lot of things we’re already doing at Atomic to make that a reality.

  • DISC profiles give newly-formed teams some quick insights and background.
  • Pair lunches, in which Atomic covers the meal cost for a pair of Atoms to spend lunch together, give people opportunities to get to know each other more deeply.
  • Sprint retrospectives provide regular opportunities for the team to identify helpful changes.
  • Flexibility and autonomy create a lot of opportunities to experiment.

My Expanded Defintion

After reading The One Thing You Need to Know and considering the perspective of people management, I’m eager to do more to nurture that type of team environment. My updated internal definition includes a new, important bullet point:

A self-managing team at Atomic:

  • Manages our side of the project – the budget, estimates, and backlog
  • Determines how we work on a daily basis – our hours in the office, where we sit
  • Defines technical practices that fit the team – pairing, testing
  • Interacts directly with our clients to make decisions that affect the project
  • Understands what is unique about each member of the team and acts to capitalize on it

I’m eager to make this new approach a part of our teams.