Last week a friend of mine told me a story that I wanted to share with the rest of the world.

A couple of years ago he was working as a line manager. Together with a colleague he managed a group of about 25 people, consisting of two teams. Each team was responsible for their own domain.

Expectation planning forecast that one of the domains would be receiving less work in the future, whilst other domains were destined for a higher volume of work and would require a heightened focus. The team dynamics would need to change.

The line managers started consulting with their teams. On a voluntary basis, they asked team members to help them design the new department. This process was partly born out of the idea that if self-organizing teams are good, self-forming teams within a self-organizing group would be even better.

Over a period of time, the project group came up with a department design that consisted of three teams, each with their own domain. They estimated that each domain would have a similar volume of work.

Next a meeting was planned to reorganize the department into the three teams. The meeting started with a review of the project to date. They discussed how teams in their current format would not be future proof, and how a project group had been formed from the teams to come up with three new teams that would function more efficiently. The teams were told, “So now you all get to decide who should be in which team”.

A set of team constraints was put in place: all teams should be about the same size and each team should contain the members necessary to get the work done. Ideally there should be demographical diversity within the teams (please don’t make one “all female team” ;)). Finally, the people were told, “Go ahead, it’s your decision”.

After some initial movement, the shuffling stopped in a non-ideal position. Everyone was looking at their line managers for guidance. So they did the only thing they could do; they left the room. Before leaving, they told the people “If you really can’t figure it out, come and get us”. Then stepped out.

After a three hour session, the teams self-organized and reformed. All team members committed to make their new team a success, and do what they could to add to the overall goal.

Why would one want to do this? Why would a manager not just say “Here’s the new team layout, live with it!”? After all, that’s how it’s been done for the past decades. What changed?

Number one: People designing their own team are more engaged and committed to the cause of the team. THEY want to be in the team so THEY will need to make that team a success.

One of the things happening during the formation of the new teams was one team saying, “We’re not sure we have all the skills necessary to do the work but we’re willing to learn.” As a creativity manager all you need to do now is enable them access to learn those skills.

Which brings us to number two: No more, “We don’t have the right team members”. The team may not have the right skillset. Which, in the past, meant they’d need to hire someone with those skills. But with the level of commitment within self-formed and self-organizing team, skills are an afterthought; We can train those.

Number three; As there is one common goal and one common purpose, team dynamics will start out on a higher level than if the people were forced to be in one team. People will go that extra mile for the people they chose as team collaborators

“Does that mean it’s all roses and rainbows?”

Nah, probably not. There are always pitfalls that you will want to try to anticipate . These could happen before, during and after the process.

Some things that were observed in our case:

It isn’t a good idea to have one “Champion” in the group. This could lead to a high risk of everyone looking to that champion for guidance, and if the champion isn’t able to support them, he could simply reassign people to teams, taking away all possible advantage.

Take good care of environment management. Your stakeholders or senior level managers may not understand this, or agree with it. Keep them involved from as early on as possible to get buy-in and support.

And one important lesson learned in our experiment: Make sure you are flexible with  the teams. If someone comes to you two weeks down the line and decides he wants to be on a different team, make sure that option is available.

With many thanks to the managers in question from Ericsson Eurolab ICT Development Centre in Herzogenrath, Germany. Thank you to Yusuf Han and Martin Gorren, for sharing this story with us. I look forward to using these lessons in my next work experiments.

Photo: rawpixel (Unsplash)


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