Ultimate Guide to Self-Managed Teams

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Self-managed teams can bring various benefits but can be difficult to implement well, especially for the first time. A more traditional method for forming teams includes having a team leader who supervises team members, but with self-managed teams, it’s quite different. While this can have a huge benefit in terms of productivity, it can also go wrong pretty easily.

This article aims to give you a better understanding of how to implement self-managing teams, the benefits, and the most common pitfalls to avoid.

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What is a self-managing team?

Whereas a more traditional organizational structure tends to involve a manager delegating tasks to employees and ultimately being responsible for the final product, a self-managed team is different. In this case, it involves a group of employees operating mostly or completely on their own without supervision. 

The team handles the production of a product or delivery of service to clients with minimal oversight. The teams themselves are also responsible for determining deadlines, schedules, and communication. 

As an example, picture a software company creating a self-managed team responsible for finding new customers for a specific piece of software. The team determines which audience to target, how to target them, and the responsibility of each team member. They then work together to achieve their goal and each team member contributes equally to the final outcome. 

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Benefits of self-managed teams

There are several potential benefits to having self-managed teams. These include:

  • Greater employee engagement. Actively including team members in the decision-making process helps to engage them more in the outcome of those decisions. Self-managed teams also encourage participation from all team members, not just a few. 
  • Less oversight and more independence. Self-managed teams mean leaders typically spend less time on oversight, making those teams more desirable for individuals who prefer to work independently. This also allows the team leaders to focus on other tasks and optimize their time, impact, and effectiveness.  
  • Reduced costs. Because more self-managed teams usually mean much less oversight, this often means that leaders can manage more teams, leading to a need to hire fewer leaders, thereby saving management costs – especially in larger organizations. The organization is then able to save that cost, or use the equivalent they might have spent to allocate to other resources.  
  • Better decision-making. Getting input from a self-managed team can lead to better decisions precisely because all team members get to contribute. This increases the amount of experience and the number of different perspectives brought to bear thanks to the more collaborative culture. This can often lead to new ideas coming to the fore that might not have been heard or even raised under a more traditional team management structure. 

Common characteristics of self-managed teams

When self-managed teams are implemented right, they usually become not just highly driven and motivated, but also often innovative and impactful. There are some key characteristics that typically set self-managed teams apart from other team structures. These include: 

  • Self-drive. Self-managed teams know their target and are motivated to play their part and support the team because they feel like they have even more of a stake in its success.  
  • Increased trust. Because self-managed teams must rely on each other to perform well, this usually leads to a mutually supportive culture that leads to easier idea-sharing and generation based on mutual respect. This builds trust, which in turn increases idea sharing, and this process becomes a virtuous circle of continuous improvement and optimization. Learn more about the team development cycle.
  • Employee-driven decisions are the norm. Leadership is a must for self-managed teams, but no one person takes on the leadership role. Instead, everyone contributes to decisions. These teams know their process best, and the organization trusts them to make informed decisions. 
  • High self-awareness of potential for continuous improvement. Self-managed team members are always looking for ways to improve their performance and processes.  
  • Strong communication. Being on a team that values and prioritizes open communication helps self-organizing teams thrive. These teams contribute their opinions and unique experiences to drive the team forward.

Looking for a tool that will aid a self-managing team? Check out this list of the best collaboration tools.

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Potential risks or drawbacks of self-managed teams

When considering self-managed teams for your organization, it’s helpful to be aware of the drawbacks so you can plan solutions to these challenges. Some disadvantages of self-managed teams include:

Longer decision processes. When the decision-making process is shared amongst a group of people, it may take longer to come to an agreement. This can make these teams less desirable in situations where quick decisions are necessary. 

Lack of self-motivated employees. To work efficiently, self-managed teams need people who are self-motivated and work well with others. However, it may not be possible to create such a team from existing employees, as the team potential is highly dependent upon the skills and attitudes available.  

Limited innovation. If a self-managed team has many like-minded individuals or doesn’t encourage unique ideas, you might find that the team is unable to come up with bold new ideas or creative solutions to problems. 

How to avoid the pitfalls of implementing a self-managed team

If you’d like to implement this type of team within your business, consider following the tips below:

  • Create a voting system for more rapid team-based decision-making.
  • Hire new people when first assembling a self-managed team, or move more creative employees to new teams where possible.
  • Add more diverse voices to teams, either from within your organization’s talent pool or by hiring from outside. This will often tend to increase the cognitive diversity and innovation potential of a given team. 
  • Provide initial leadership. This can be helpful when first setting up a self-managed team, for example by offering guidelines, examples of other successful teams to follow, or come recommended best practices. Being with more direct supervision gradually reduces that as the team develops in confidence and competence.
  • Introduce team-building exercises. Self-managed teams work best when team members trust and communicate well with one another. If you’re creating a new self-managed team, it may help to organize some team-building exercises at the start of the project to help the team bond and build what’s known as “social glue”. 
  • Improve communication channels. Identifying the tools your self-managed team needs to communicate with each other. If they’re working in the same office, give them some regular meeting space. For remote teams, think about which tools would be most effective for them, from video conference and messaging apps to email.  
  • Review team performance regularly. It’s a good idea to review the performance of your teams over time to help ensure they’re meeting project goals and bonding as a team. It’s worth reviewing their communication effectiveness and motivation as well as productivity, as all of these are measures that can be improved.  

Using Teamhood to boost your team’s productivity

Self-managed teams are just one method for increasing team productivity. Check out our ever-expanding library of team performance resources to learn more about what it takes to foster a high-performing team environment in your organization:

Explore more Team performance resources.

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Looking for a tool that supports the environment of a self-managed team? Check out Teamhood for a visual, fully featured, and free team task management solution.

Passionate content marketer looking to bring better solutions to the project management space.

2020 - Present Marketing specialist at Teamhood.
2014 - 2020 Marketing manager for Eylean.

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