Deciding where to apply self-management in an organization hinges on three questions: What needs to be reliable? What kinds of adaptation are important? And what organizational forms will produce the right balance in this case?
Using self-management principles to design an entire organization makes sense if the optimal level of adaptability is high—that is, if the organization operates in a fast-changing environment in which the benefits of making quick adjustments far outweigh the costs, the wrong adjustments won’t be catastrophic, and the need for explicit controls isn’t significant. That’s why many start-ups are early adopters. The business of designing and developing games also fits these criteria well, as Valve discovered. But in reliability-driven industries such as retail banking and defense contracting, hierarchical structures prevail, even if there is room for niche competitors (in banking, think of Umpqua, famous for having a phone in every branch that enables customers to ring the CEO’s office) or for certain units within the organization (such as the original Skunk Works at Lockheed Martin) to go against the traditional grain.
Companies must also work out how much hierarchy and process they need to ensure coherence and what other kinds of “glue,” such as shared purpose and a common ethical compass, they can use. Dov Seidman’s “The HOW Report” quantifies the degree to which various companies rely on those other cohesive elements and links self-governance to a range of performance outcomes. Seeing how others have fared can help organizations sort out whether—and where—this particular glue makes sense for them.
Ultimately, and somewhat ironically, the next generation of self-managing teams is demanding a new generation of leaders—senior individuals with the vision to see where it is best to set aside hierarchy for another way of operating, but also with the courage to defend hierarchy where it serves the institution’s fundamental goals.