How to move step by step towards Self-Management

Gosh, I am fed up with empty company talk of “Leadership” and “Our Values.” Why? For a start, I have my own values. I do not need yours. Thank you.

Second, what most people call Leadership, sounds like manipulation, interference and mind control to me. I am from Germany. We certainly had “great” leadership in the Third Reich…

Usually, these corporate value and leadership exercises are dishonest, glitzy exercises to get a company more “Startupy.” At best they are inept attempts to lessen the degree of the companies sclerosis.

I really think there are more effective ways to make use of your limited lifespan, than spending it in an amateurish corporate innovation theater.

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The Corporate Innovation Theater (Source:

Start moving toward Self-Management

Autonomy, Entrepreneurial Spirit, Empowerment – call it any way you like: Moving Organizations towards more Self-Management is probably the one mission-critical piece of DNA that traditional companies are missing.

More Innovation is tied to more Self Management. It’s as simple as that. More Self Management means moving organizations towards the Sweet Spot of Innovation (see the last post What kind of Organization do modern Companies aspire to be?).

On a team level, there are frameworks for self-management. From the Lean Startup to Scrum to Amazons two-pizza teams, there is a lot of advice, techniques, and best-practice to create high performing teams. But on an organizational level, this is a lot harder.  The risks of hierarchical interference by some manager into the cherished “entrepreneurial and empowered” behaviors shown by underlings increases exponentially with each new level of a hierarchy. It’ as simple as that: Hierarchy and Innovation do not match well.

So what are the ways organizations can progress?

The 4 Management Paradigms

To get a company to innovate, transform and learn new Management Paradigms need to be adapted.


Paradigm 1: Command and Control

What you have experienced during your education in school or while working for a company is Command & Control Management: People who told you what to do, because they had the mandate to it. Your school teacher held this mandate to control you, as did the manager you report to. Those Hierarchs holding power over you might have been benevolent or nasty, giving you a good or a hell of a time.

Chances are you adapted to their style. You accommodated to the situation, you blended in. You did your job. You raised your head in opposition only if it was safe to do so. Otherwise, you did your job. It was or is the thing you are paid for.

So did I. In 42 Years of Education and Work I blended in. Despite a perceptive streak that always made me rebellious underneath, I seldom let this come to the surface. And if I did allow it to surface, I usually did no more than vented my anger in supposedly safe environments with coworkers. It just doesn’t pay to pick a fight with the hierarchy: The few times I tried to stand up for truth, decency or plain reason, I was defeated. It pays to accept that the Status quo is the most potent force in a hierarchy.

Paradigm 2: Mission Command

But there were far more good times than bad times. When did you experience good times in organizations? I bet that these good times can be characterized as such:

  • There was trust in you to achieve things in your way
  • You worked intensively with colleagues
  • You felt a sense of purpose or contribution by helping others, the customer or the organization

What you felt those good times can be linked to a management style called “Mission Command.” Someone has been managing you, but that person brought out the best in you – or left you alone to bring yourself to bring out the best in you.

A Manager practicing Mission Command allows an individual or a unit of an organization to define how she or he will achieve commanders intent. If the purpose is clear, the objectives are stated, the manager practicing this style leaves the subordinate to rely on their own ingenuity.


Command & Control and Mission Control are not mutually exclusive.  A Manager can exercise both Management style, depending on the situation and issues at hand. Managers leaning toward Command & Control can be described as “Micro-Managers.” Managers leaning toward Mission Command are Managers that empower others.

For more on mission command, look at this post from October 2015: Force 4: New Work organization.

Paradigm 3: Self Management

Self-Management is defined as “management of or by oneself; the taking of responsibility for one’s own behavior and well-being.” Wherelse a superior keeps an employee locked in an adult-child relationship, modern Management Systems based on self-management aim to establish adult relationships in organizations.

How do they do that? By getting rid of the Hierarchy. It’s an egalitarian approach based on discipline. Think of it: Most of us cringe if they hear “egalitarian”: “That cannot work.” But if you combine this with discipline – a term we all know too well from our command and control past – it gets interesting.

I won’t say any more here about those Management Systems relying on Self Management. Shame on you if you did not read the last 12 long posts starting in May 2017. Here is the starter: A New Ideology for Management in the Digital Age and the post starting of a whole series on  Holacracy, Liberation and Management 3.0.

Paradigm 4: Crowd Management

Behind self-management with the gradual dissolution of the hierarchy, of more and more superior-subordinate relationships, comes the demise of the company as the legal glue that holds people together. This is the terrain of the crowd, which can bring into existence such wonderful things like the World Wide Web, Linux or Wikipedia.

It has been argued by many futurists since Thomas Malones 2008 book “The future of Work” that companies will tend to get slimmer because they will spin-off more and more of their activities towards the crowd. And today, 9 years later, it is happening. Take for example the platform economy, e.g., Uber, Airbnb, 99 designs et al.

How to move towards Self-Management

What vexed me a lot during the last two years is the following:

It’s good and fair that Mission Control achieves better results through more engaged employees and more organizational learning. It even makes the workplace a better place to be.

But how can I get Managers to embrace this empowering Management style? How can I get people who lived for nearly all their lives in Command & Control environments to trust, relax control and truly empower people?

To tell them to do it, through training, conversations, and coaching is just not enough to ensure consistency – otherwise, we wouldn’t have this high degree of disengagement in companies and the high degree of resistance to change.


Let’s face it: Command and Control is what we inhaled in our upbringing. It is part of our culture. It requires exceptional people to let go and embrace mission command. This feeling is primarily shared by many Silicon Valley companies like Google. The Solution to this? Hiring – see Hiring like a Pro: Lessons from Google. The empowering, entrepreneurial, team working, curious type of candidate must be hired!

I have three problems with this:

  1. Hiring your way out of trouble is not an option for established companies
  2. Putting the “right” people in toxic, command and control enterprise cultures will end up with the new hires leaving the firm or adapting to become part of the system
  3. Hiring the people with the right character traits is a great way to sustain a given culture, but not a way to create a new culture.

Hiring is, therefore, a supplemental, flanking action, but cannot be the main angle of attack. Lazlo Bock, an HR Director at Google, states in his 2014 book “Work rules,” that  “hiring is the most important skill of an organization.” I disagree. Hiring is supplemental.

The most critical and fundamental management skill is to “terraform” the organization through holistic, learning organizational design.

Such a powerful terraforming tool are Participative Management practices. It can be pictured as Delegation on Steroids. An excellent name for the next post – so bear with me.


If you really want an organization to be innovative and an excellent place to work in:

  • Renovate your Management Techniques
  • Update your world-view and embrace the Digital world
  • Step outside the corporate Innovation Theater

Embrace more self-management. I am not saying “go all-out for self-management.” There is not enough proof to advise that (yet). But try more Mission Command yourself, read Jurgen Appelo’s Management3.0 and get into your read about Participative Management Practices – Delegation on Steroids – in a fortnight.



This is what I think. What do you think?

Further Reading:

What kind of Organization do modern Companies aspire to be?

Let’s face it: Traditional companies, with purely hierarchical, command and control based organizations have lost. They have lost in market evaluation, they are bleeding market share and have lost the initiative to their digital, less hierarchical competitors. So what do they do: Either they remain shell-shocked or they are “going digital.”

Going Digital – the superficial way

But what does “going digital” mean? Usually…

  • some investments in start-ups
  • founding a digital laboratory charged with breeding innovations which should somehow find their way into the rest of the organization
  • experimenting with Scrum in IT projects
  • experimenting with lean start-up techniques in product innovations

But they are just scratching the surface. Over time those companies run into trouble with the way they are managing things. Traditional management is based on the premise that

  1. a manager finds the “one best way” to do things
  2. commands things to be done in that “best” way
  3. controls the execution

This formula turns out to be a bad one in everchanging, data-rich, technologically complex times. Innovation and Change is a weak point of the traditional management system. All those digital initiatives are torpedoed again and again by the hierarchy, like an immune system attacking the virus of change spread by start-ups, digital labs and agile practices. These attacks may not even be made with malicious intent. These attacks originate in a firm belief in rules and processes – which are just incompatible with innovation and change.

Going Digital – the right way

Going genuinely digital means changing management systems. It means …

  • making the hierarchy more irrelevant
  • listening to the wisdom of crowds, last not least employees
  • embracing uncertainty and experiments
  • building an environment, that ensures that all signals of the markets are reflected in the day to day decisions that employees do

Today there are about three significant templates of management systems available:

  1. Traditional Management, based on hierarchy
  2. Liberation, based on self-management
  3. Management3.0, based on agile practices

All other Management Systems of any size (such as Holacracy), are contained within these three major systems.


In the last series of posts, I have explored Liberation, Holacracy, and Management3.0 versus Traditional Management in great details (see Holacracy, Liberation and Management 3.0). Let me explain why I think there are only these three systems out there:

  • Traditional Management, i.e., Frederick Laloux’s “Orange” state of human collaboration (have a look at Moving an Organisation to Self Management for a quick view of Laloux’s model), is the status quo system still used nearly universally around the globe
  • Liberation, i.e., Fredrick Laloux’s “Teal” state of human collaboration, is all about self-management. The Abolishment of hierarchy changes everything. Holacracy and Sociocracy are subsets of Liberation
  • Management 3.0, is a set of agile practices promoted by Jurgen Appelo. It straddles the middle ground between Hierarchy and self-management. While Management 3.0 is not yet universally known in Management circles, it nevertheless describes all the attempts to soften up the hierarchy with agile practices quite well. It is therefore implicitly practiced by a lot of companies, that are not even aware of Management3.0 existence

The Lean Start-up Method is limited to – well – Start-ups. It is not a universal Management Model but a set of prescriptions who to come up with new products through structured experimentation and learning. While this thinking model is excellent for continuous improvement, too, it is still rooted deeply in the core problem of getting new products to the market, not in running all aspects of an established company.

For the sake of completeness, I have included team-centric frameworks such as Scrum, Prince2. PMI in the graphic. These are not holistic management frameworks, as they are limited to the management of projects and teams. Some companies think that scaling agile team practices such as Scrum to all sorts of teams will result in overall organizational transformation. But finally, even with templates for doing this scaling, such as SAFe, LeSS and Nexus being available, it’s always about projects and teams. Not Organizations. These attempts are like attempts to use a hammer for an all sorts of purposes at home, e.g. like cleaning the dishes.

All these Management Systems have been described by practitioners. Academic research is used as a foundation for these models, but the complexity of organizations prevents researchers from holistic, stringent definitions. So you got to live with my attempt of categorizing. It’s only my view – so contrarians forward and tell me what you think!

Which companies use which Management Model?

Let’s position some companies in this matrix. This positioning is just my subjective guesswork, which is inspired by all the sources that I happened to read (see Sources). It is tough to put something as multidimensional as a Management System in a two-dimensional matrix, but here it is my hunch:


What strikes me in that graphic are three points:

  1. The VOID: There are no hierarchical companies which are innovative, i.e., score high in the Start-up Y axis.
  2. The Sweet Spot: The most successful, poster children of silicon valley are located on the border between hierarchy and self-management
  3. The drive for Purpose: All Companies with an inner purpose beyond pure profit-seeking are located more to the left of the matrix.  While an overarching purpose is a prerequisite of self-managed Organizations, the Organizations in the “Sweet Spot” appear to need an overarching purpose as a necessary condition to maximize innovation

Each placement is, of course, an oversimplification. Look at Amazon. The famous “two pizza team size” so often cited as one of Amazons cultural ingredients, is alive and kicking in the product divisions. The worker in the distribution centers couldn’t care less about this rule, except for the occasional continuous improvement exercise. Different units of companies can be in different locations in the matrix. For more on the topic of how to differentiate different ways of managing various parts of organizations, check out You are playing the wrong game! Learn to zone.

Where is the Momentum?

Next, let’s take on a dynamic perspective: What do companies aspire to be? To which organizational and management model do they move towards?


Established companies are moving from the lower right to the upper middle by introducing more and more of Agile and Lean Start-up practices into their organizations. In no small part, managers in those organizations rarely think about moving to self-management, but that is precisely what they are doing.

The earlier and the more managers accept that more self-management is the new reality of effective management, the more successful their digitalization efforts will be.

In the upper left corner are the start-ups. These have a slightly unique organizational model that can be best described by Eric Rees book “The Lean Start-up”. As they are maturing and face the need to scale, those companies are moving to the lower right of the matrix. They are getting more like established companies with “adult supervision.” Only time will tell which companies will be able to pull off the feat to remain in the sweet spot and not become the next Yahoo, eBay or Nokia.

This is what I am thinking. What are you thinking?