Adopting Self-Management: Big Bang or Baby Steps?

As I waded deeper into the sea of knowledge of Self-Management, I recognized a clash of opinions on how to adopt it. On the one side are the purists, who claim that only a big bang will do. Otherwise, the hierarchy will pervade and undermine Self-Managed Structures over time, thereby reestablishing itself and making a mockery of the whole exercise.

On the other site are the pragmatists, who do agree that such a Self-Management revolution would be great, but is utterly unrealistic. Instead, they want to work from inside the (hierarchical) system and try to get the hierarchy to release its grip more and more. The way to do this is to do Agile Work-outs, single, more or less stand-alone exercises, like improved Delegation, running SCRUM projects, reshuffling office spaces, etc.


Baby steps: Agile Work-outs

Agile work-outs are small, practical ways of collaborating in teams. Here is a list of examples.


More info on agile exercises can be found on Management3.0 or Liberating Structures.

Small steps can have significant impacts. If done deliberately and repeatedly over time, these small steps may shape behaviors. These behaviors become a part of a person, they become a habit. That’s basic coaching theory. So why not use this reputable mechanic to shape organizations as well? Surely, what works with individuals and groups will be working with organizations, too.

Maybe not. Organizations are different, because they contain so many individual players, that they become impersonal. Organizations have what academics call “emergent” properties: They have characteristics and show behaviors that can not be observed in its individual components, i.e., persons. Even teams have emergent properties, but in big organizations, these are much stronger: In groups, you get visual, verbal and lots of other cues about the effect that a particular decision has directly from your teammates. In organizations, these feedback mechanisms might be weak or nonexisting. How knows what the guys in the next building are even doing?

It takes a lot of effort, often nothing less than a major crisis, to get an organization to change. Chances are, that agile work-outs…

  • will be co-opted by the hierarchy and management – and result in nothing but lip-service. A lay theatrical performance
  • are done in a random, nonsensical manner – and thereby just add to Corporate Gimmickery Score
  • will be of limited use, if the organization is operating on a “need to know basis” and fails to provide workers with any transparency about any context
  • will be of limited use, if there is no mission that provides “true north” to let employees know what they should contribute to, and – shock – why they should engage at all
  • will be useless, if there is no safe place to express criticism or – god beware – feelings

Without a focal point of action, a clear “Schwerpunkt,” agile work-outs may just be a new corporate fad. People will likely grow disillusioned, tired and plain weary of them.

Big Bang: Revolutionary Designs

If hierarchical organizations are so resilient to change, you can’t change them by evolution. Nothing short of a revolution will suffice: Down with the hierarchy! Down with the caste of managers! Down to the tyranny that makes adults live become kids once they enter the office door!

That is the view of a lot of seasoned and experienced veterans of the self-management movement, for example, Brian Robertson or Koldo Saratxaga. Adopting self-management is painful and the hierarchy will re-establish itself if the transfer of power to workers is not done permanently, decisively, by the owner.

A successful rebellion needs a plan. Holacracy provides such a plan. It gives an “operating system” that replaces the workings of the hierarchy and determines where workers got to settle into. Another script for the start of the rebellion is provided by the Spanish consultancy K2K Emoncionado.

Apart from the pains that such a radical step causes, the primary challenge is: How on earth should any sizeable number of owners ever summon this much of egalitarian resolve to abdicate their powers to workers? Yes, there are more and more cases of owners doing that. Corporate Rebels has and is reporting on these cases.

Do not get me wrong: I absolutely think there is a huge economic and humanitarian case to resolutely go for self-management. But I fear that by waiting for more enlightened and bold owners to turn over control, the Rebellion won’t scale. Self-Management will remain a curious sideshow on a stage dominated by sclerotic companies dedicated to the status quo and to exploitation.


I can see the logic in the Baby-Step and in the Big-Bang Approach. But I do think that neither the Pragmatists nor the Purists do offer a viable route for established organizations to move towards self-management:

  • The Baby steps theory will properly not get anywhere in any reasonable amount of time. It will likely fade over time as just another set of corporate gimmicks which have been tried and forgotten
  • The Big Bang Approach will remain Niche: No matter how high the demand, the supply side of the market for enlightened owners is very slim. There are only very few people willing to go all-out for Self-Management. Most will need more convincing. They need a way to figure out Self-Management in controlled pilots and experiments

Is there a middle way?

A way to scale the Rebellion much faster? Exponentially, maybe? 10X?

What do you think?


This Post has been originally posted on 27th of December on Corporate Rebels. There is an interesting discussion there in the comment section, with Brian J. Roberts, the founder of Holacracy,  weighing in

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