Self-Management: A New Study?


A recent study compared a couple of different ways of organising a production environment.

Both groups had 40 employees.  The first group had seven types of roles and was divided into 14 subgroups, with coordination, integration and continuity of the work being the responsibility of management.

The second group coordinated itself.  They had the same roles as the first group, but they decided themselves who would rotate to what tasks and which shifts they would work.

Here’s the findings:

  • Second group demonstrated a much higher standard of workingship – tidier workspace, hardware well maintained, whereas the first group was more….sloppy
  • The second group spent 0.5% of their time on ‘non-productive ancillary work’, the first group 33% (yep!)
  • The second group had 60% less absence from the workplace, be it sickness, accident or no reason at all.
  • And in terms of production….the second group produced 50% more than the first50%!  Or to put it another way, the first group was at 78% of potential, the second at 95%.

What’s the study?

Well…I have to come clean.  By ‘recent’, I was more on a geological timescale.  The study was conducted in the 1950s.

Two hundred kilometres southwest, teenager John Lennon hadn’t even formed the Quarrymen, let alone the Beatles.

The production wasn’t software development.  It was coal mining.  In Durham, UK.  The work was getting the coal from long walls.  Fun stuff.

You can read about it in Gerrit Broekstra’s book Building High-Performance, High Trust Organizations.

You see, the results on this stuff are in – when people have some sort of control/autonomy/authority over their own work….things are better.  We don’t need further studies on this, and if you just ponder anything in your own work life where you’ve felt totally into it…I’m sure these conditions were there.

So, here’s some thoughts on what we’re seeing here, and in similar studies and examples of self-managing enterprises:

  • The automatic conclusion is not ‘get rid of managers’.  Studies like this help managers see how to add value, which is about helping the team enable itself to do great work.  Both groups in the study above still had managers, but in the second group, managers were able to focus on safety and support…in other words, were able to be of service (for those who have done our workshops or our online training, the word ‘Service’ is no coincidence)
  • Nor does this study mean managers get to say ‘OK, HAVE the authority then, do it  YOURSELF‘, and walk away.  This is called abdication.  Managers have a useful and necessary role in clarifying what is required of a team to be valuable to it’s customers, then being of service to the team in helping it to achieve those requirements. In other words, the exact opposite to set-and-forget, it’s set-and-contribute. 
  • Getting to a situation where a team takes control of it’s own organising requires psychological work on behalf of both managers and employees.  As Peter Block writes in Stewardship, employees are asked to give up their need to be dependent (and therefore be safe) and blame ‘management’, and managers are asked to give up their need to dominate (and therefore be safe) how the work is done and blame employees.
  • What we are looking for are both Managers and Employees contributing as partners to the purpose and requirements of the team.   Not as parents and children.  Easy to say.  To do, however, requires a level of self-reflection not everyone is up for.
  • And this is what’s hard about organisational life – we can talk accountability all we like, and we can visit consequences onto people who don’t keep their promises, but in the end, taking ownership is an individual choice.

This is what we need to talk more about – the choices we are making, whether we are choosing self-interest, and acknowledge we are always welcome to instead choose to serve the team or the organisation.

The Durham coal miners study is not a shining example of self-organisation.

It’s a shining example of what happens when everyone is treated like an adult and chooses accountability.

That’s the hardest choice.


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