At Shared Assets we have been explicitly working to become a self-managing organisation for a good couple of years now. Indeed, ever since we set ourselves up in 2012, both Mark and I have had an aspiration to create “an organisation we’d actually want to work for”. This nice goal has evolved into a fully fledged strategy for self management, and set us off on a journey that will probably never stop.
As we begin to slowly emerge from the COVID-19 lockdown, it feels like a good moment to pause, and reflect on what we’ve learned about what self-management means, and feels like in practice.
So, here are 5 things we have learned over the past 8 years:
1. Be clear about what you mean
We started – as do many people – with Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations, where he talks about “teal” organisations, where self management is a key feature. He describes many self managing organisations, where decisions are devolved, responsibilities are shared, and there’s no command and control culture. For us, a key principle has been that we want to treat everyone like adults, with the power and autonomy to manage their own time and work. What this isn’t, though, is getting rid of hierarchies or creating a totally “flat” organisation. Hierarchies – of time, experience, privilege and expertise – will always exist.
What we are striving for is creating an organisation where hierarchies are used wisely and really healthy power dynamics exist. I’ve found a lot of what Richard Bartlett has written on this very helpful – especially this very thorough analysis. What has also felt important here is that we want everyone to be accountable to each other, the work and our clients rather than to the organisation or to a manager. So, for instance, staff don’t have to ask permission to take leave or work flexibly as long as it doesn’t negatively impact others.
2. Practice, practice, practice
You could lose yourself in organisational theory (and if you’d like to, try the Talking About Organisations or Leadermorphosis podcasts), but it can be hard to know where to start actually doing things differently. What I’ve found most helpful here is Samantha Slade’s book Going Horizontal, and I was lucky enough to be part of an online course with the wonderful name of Organising Like Mycelium recently, led by Samantha and the fabulous Phoebe Tickell. This was a great chance to experience some of the Going Horizontal practices, and really reinforced the message that you can make big changes by starting with small steps and ways of doing things differently. This can feel a little awkward, even in a super supportive environment, so it’s nice to have some processes to follow. We are particularly enjoying experimenting with this Generative Decision Making Process – bringing some structure to reaching a position on big issues that we are all able to live with.
3. Recruit carefully, and use trial periods well
While we’ve always had what you might call an instinct for self-management, we haven’t always vocalised that that is what we are trying to achieve. We’ve consistently had brilliant team members, but since we have started to explicitly say that we want to work with people who are excited by the responsibility and freedom of self management, the team dynamic has been much more effective and purposeful. We’ve also learned that really using probationary periods as a two-way trial period can make sure that we really do have the right people in post, as this blog from our ex-colleague Carys explains so beautifully.
4. Get to know each other
One of the key principles of “teal” organisations is about “striving for wholeness”, or bringing your “whole self” to work. While this might come more naturally in the relatively informal, values based sector we work in, we’re also really aware of not creating an environment where oversharing is expected. One practical thing we have found very helpful (and h/t to Cassie Robinson for this idea) is creating “user manuals of me”. These are short documents where we all share our preferences and preferred ways of working – and maybe more importantly, how we don’t like to work, and what makes us anxious.
Our newest recruit, Tom, started with us during lockdown and sharing these with each other has helped integrate him into the team more quickly. We also check in with each other every day on Slack, and allocate time for check ins in team meetings. This creates a bit of structure for everyone to regularly share a bit about how we are doing, and particularly at the moment – how the wider state of the world is affecting us.
5. Embrace asynchronicity
We were already very flexible and pretty remote, and since lockdown have decided not to renew our lease after 3 great years at CAN Mezzanine in Borough. So we are thinking very consciously at the moment about what the shift to completely remote working will mean (although once we can all meet again we will be planning some very rich in-person team meetings!). Something that being remote makes far easier is not all having to be available at the same time in order to make decisions – we are already using google drive and slack but have recently been enjoying Loomio for more long-form discussion.
We’re currently developing our (emergent and agile) strategy for the next three years. A key objective of that is to build a skilled and leaderful organisation that operates on a more distributed leadership model and reduces reliance on the leadership of, and delivery by, the Executive Directors. We think this is both a savvy way of building a competitive organisation, and the right thing to do for the whole team’s mental health and fulfilment.
We’re always keen to talk to others on a similar journey. In particular this year we are considering how we change the focus of our sickness and incapacity policy to one that supports wellness, and also to develop a participatory process for deciding pay and progression. We are also moving towards being a four day working week organisation. Please do get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re thinking along similar lines or have examples you would be happy to share!