How & Why to Build Self-Directed Teams

How & Why to Build Self-Directed Teams
Dmitry Davydov
May 25, 2015
Last updated: July 10, 2019
A traditionally managed team is a team that a team leader oversees; the team leader will assign goals, help develop projects, and bear the bulk of the decision making and the responsibility. There are varying levels of management, of course; some team leaders will allow and encourage autonomy, while others will manage to the most minute level.

Self-directed teams, on the other hand, handle most of these traditional leadership responsibilities themselves. A team leader still exists, but takes more of a coach or mentor role, acting as a liaison between the team and the upper administration of the company. 

Are self-directed teams better than traditionally managed teams? It depends; businesses and business needs vary. Some departments, functions, or projects might benefit from a self-directed team, while others may require more oversight and day-to-day direction from a team leader.

With self-directed teams, the intrinsic motivators of autonomy, challenge, and purpose are built into the very heart of the team. Research shows that self-directed teams produce higher levels of organizational effectiveness, better solutions, and increased levels of productivity and creativity.

It's a pretty compelling list of benefits for self-directed teams. However, you don't get a self-directed team by saying, "Do your thing, guys!" and then burying your head in the sand.

Here are three keys for building a self-directed team. Or rather, for helping a self-directed team build itself.

Key 1: Practical Purpose

A self-directed team has to know why it exists. Some purposes are clear right away: for example, self-directed teams in manufacturing have a clearly defined role (produce, package, or ship, for example) for a clearly defined product.

Not all team purposes are so easy to define. The company vision or mission statement is a good starting point. But the team needs to identify their particular purpose within that grander vision. More open-ended purposes include product development, innovation, problem-solving, and customer satisfaction team. Self-directed teams might also be tied to a specific department, such as IT or marketing, and need to define their purpose as a department.
Once the purpose is defined, it needs to be tied to measurable results. Otherwise there's no real way for the team to know if they're being successful or not. Not being able to measure and celebrate success will quickly drain that intrinsic motivation.

Key 2: Appropriate Authority

A self-directed team requires a shift in leadership thinking. The team leader's role shifts from manager to coach, resource, liaison, advisor, and occasional referee (more on that later).
In order to function, a self-directed team must have the authority to make decisions, choose goals (within their larger purpose), access resources, change processes, adopt, change, and discard methods and systems, and redefine standards as needed. Basically, they have to be able to do whatever needs to be done to do the work.
Of course there are boundaries; teams might have free access to a certain set of resources, but need permission for a more-valued (or for a shared) set. Or the self-directed team might have a defined budget and need approval for spending outside of that budget.

Key 3: Great Communication

Anytime you're setting out to do a new thing, communication becomes even more important than it was before. And communication is always important.
Don't underestimate the importance of interpersonal skills. Successful group work requires a specific set of skills; those skills are not inherent and may not have been acquired by all the members of the self-directed team. Before you set your team free to manage itself, assess the team members' ability to communicate, handle conflict, reach resolutions, work well together despite dislikes/differences, and compromise in order to produce results.

Expect a learning curve when establishing a self-directed team. There will be one, both for the leader moving from manager to coach and for the team, moving from subordinate to autonomous. You'll probably need more frequent meetings as the team hammers out the practical details of how they will operate, make decisions, and produce results. As they find their self-directed groove, however, you'll be freed to focus on things besides managing, and they'll be free to do the work they know how to do.

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