How do you successfully set up self-steering (remote-operating) teams?

Jeez, what have we gotten ourselves into? As a board member, Program Manager or Project Manager, what do you need to do? Your strategic annual planning, the ongoing projects, that roll-out, the program that had to be completed before the summer, your migration to a new platform or that major update of your critical software platform. Suddenly everything is at risk, all your people are working from home.... and probably soon enough, everything will go back to normal and you want to achieve your annual objectives if possible. And here I want to state loud and clear, THIS CAN BE DONE! Trust me, it's going to work, even with remote working people.

In times of crisis, an ancient motive emerges in every human being: the urge to survive. One of mankind's most special and valuable qualities is inextricably linked to this: our adaptability. Both principles have been used since time immemorial in the struggle for 'survival of the fittest' or evolution, and will continue to assist us in these times.

The underlying reason why I want to share this with you, is that we suddenly ended up in a completely unknown situation because of the Corona virus. The route of the path we are going to take is unclear, except that we are going to make the journey together. Leading in determining this route is, in my opinion, the rock-solid confidence in our adaptability and will to survive, which will bring us forward.

How do you strengthen your adaptability as a company?

Having said this, I understand that what is stated above applies to us as individuals, but how do companies deal with this? There are often overarching needs of great influence, needs that shift to the background in human survival. It is very important for companies to move along, to adapt and in some cases to reinvent themselves. This reinvention starts by trusting that the power of adaptability will provide new successful services, developments and efficient processes on both sides. These are well-oiled, well-adapted machines, which provide output in ways that may be different from before, but certainly no less so.

What will these new processes look like for individuals and for companies? No idea, but the first contours will slowly become visible during this first week of working from home. Are those contours definitive? Probably not and they will certainly change over time. So how should companies and management make sure that the oiled machine will be built? Very simple; you don't do that as a company and as management in the traditional top-down way. Instead, make sure that you create an environment in which something is allowed to emerge, an environment filled with trust and encouragement for employees. In addition, make sure that you continue to provide input and direction on the one hand and/or demand clear output on the other hand. Steering by indicating direction, concrete goals and frameworks as management and output, for example in the form of deliverables, sales or assignments or, more abstractly, services, income and/or (future) revenues.

The underlying theory of self-managing teams

The concept of my rock-solid trust is also deeply anchored in the principles of Agile in theory of Systems Thinking and Complex Adaptive Systems. Before descending to the pragmatic handles and the relationship with self-managing teams, it is good to first explain the two theories in a somewhat simplified way.

Ok, so 'systems thinking' is the process of understanding how certain dynamic things influence and touch each other within one whole. Examples of this can be found in everyday things; such as nature where different elements like water, plants, movements and animals work together to (over)live or extinct. Within organisations, for example, these are the people, buildings and machines and (work) processes that work together to make a company run and grow in a healthy way.

A 'complex adaptive system' is a system whose interconnected components have the ability to adapt not only to each other, but also to other adaptive systems. It possesses a high degree of adaptability and self-organisation, which means that it is not easily hindered by "malfunctions" from the outside.

Self-managing teams are needed during this remote working situation

This is where the emphatic link starts with self-managing teams that are constantly able to "reinvent themselves" when the situation demands it. As in the times in which we now work and live. Because if you as a company want to continue to operate successfully in these times, with so many people working from home, then the creation of self-directed teams is almost a must. And if, as an organisation, you might not have reached that point yet and were still operating mostly from a "top-down" approach, then this time is the perfect opportunity to rediscover yourself as a company.

Back to creating an organisation that allows "adaptive systems" to emerge. An organisation in which people work together on the basis of trust. Where creativity and positivity are cherished. Where do you start? Give direction to your teams, communicate your interests and trust that something beautiful will arise. An organised link of people who take on work at set times and in a regular manner, in changing organisational contexts and then deliver valuable output. Do not act out of fear and excessive control, but give the space as management, so that within that space ideas and creative solutions can grow like germinating seeds. Just as that seed needs air to grow, we need people's 'mental headspace' and moments of rest. Facilitate your employees to use the right tools and communication in a whole new work environment, with new appointments and for example adjusted working hours. This can range from a sound-absorbing headset (saves duck tape for the kids) to software such as Slack, Teams or Zoom to easily connect with colleagues and customers. 

Tips for management

I would like to ask managers and executives to think carefully about clear, measurable success criteria for the coming period. Give direction, not vague clues. Don't close your eyes to potential long-term success or promising explorations and don't stop too soon! The system should be given a chance to shape itself. Share best practices, what works, what doesn't? By being transparent about this, systems can take this into account in their formation. Finally, don't forget one thing: results from the past are no guarantee for the future. At the same time: what didn't work in the past may be very successful now in the changing environment. That is real value creation!

The self-managing teams of MOJEO

While I'm editing this article at my home office, with the garden doors wide open, another team of colleagues in the background is testing a new service, the virtual Project Manager. A virtual tool for all your challenges. This has arisen entirely spontaneously, partly out of necessity and also because we get a lot of requests for help from our clients and they want our expertise and of course we cannot hold physical meetings with you. Some team members took care of the customer journey in this process, others of the digital interaction (zoom or google hangouts was one of the considerations). Meanwhile, we are all logging in and testing at the same time. So a completely new service will be launched and set up within a day. Is this service going to be successful? We think so, given the questions. Will this service always exist? No idea! Will it contribute to our way of working in general? Absolutely!

Anyway, this is a very nice example of something that arises when the situation demands it and the environment is created in which it is possible to do so. Well, I'd almost say, see you soon?

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