Michael Y. Lee on lessons from researching self-managing organisations

Ep. 41


Michael Y. Lee is an Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD who researches novel and innovative ways of organising. After reading the paper he co-authored with Amy Edmondson on self-managing organisations, I wanted to talk to him to get his academic perspective on this phenomena. He shares what we can learn from self-managing organisations about leadership and how to collaborate in a more decentralised way without sacrificing coordination. We also discuss his research into the two key mechanisms that helped foster positive relational dynamics in a global distributed team.

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Lisa Gill: So Mike, thank you first of all for coming on the Leadermorphosis podcast. I first came across your work in the paper that you wrote with Amy Edmondson about self-managing organisations. So I thought maybe we could start there and you could share with listeners what that paper was about, what was the overview of the research that you've done on self-managing organisations?

Michael Y. Lee: Sure, yeah, thanks for having me. So that paper was really the beginning or the synthesis of a lot of the reading that I'd been doing throughout my doctoral studies. I've been fascinated by efforts of organisations to adopt self-management throughout the entire organisation, and as I had been doing my reading of the research, I kept feeling like the research wasn't quite capturing the uniqueness of the phenomenon that I was seeing in the world and that I was really very interested in. And so, I think the goal of that paper was really to try to engage in a dialogue between the research and the theory on efforts to decentralise authority, to foster self-management, and the practice of seeing organisations like Zappos, like Valve, like Morning Star - many of these well known cases that are out there and really to try to engage in that to see: what does the research and the theory speak to and what doesn't it speak to? And I think what I realised through this process was that the theory was able to, (and the research was able to) explore efforts to self-manage, particularly at a team level, but not really throughout the entire organisation.

And then you also had research like studies of empowerment, studies of participatory decision-making, that were at an organisational level, but they weren't quite as radical in their efforts to decentralise authority as these 'self-managing organisations' as we call them, as they were. And so it felt like there just really wasn't a clear articulation of what this phenomenon was, and so our goal was to really try to define what a self-managing organisation is and to propose: here's a research agenda for why we think it's important to study them, what can we learn from them, and what are the types of questions that researchers and scholars should be focusing on to help, I think, compliment what's happening amongst practitioners, amongst organisations that are actually trying to experiment with these approaches on the ground.

Lisa Gill: And how would you define 'a self-managing organisation'? Because I think there's a lot of misconceptions about self-management, and a lot of people are saying: "Oh, this is a self-managed organisation", or "we're self-managed" - I think there's a bit of a grey area there. So what would be your definition of 'a self-managing organisation'?

Michael Y. Lee: I would say there are (in my opinion), two fundamental features of self-managing organisations: one is the self-management piece, and we define that as what we call 'radically decentralising authority'. So there's many different ways that organisations can decentralise authority and incremental ways to give individuals and employees more power, more authority to go about and do their work. So just as some examples: organisations could give employees a vote in various types of organisational-wide decision-making, they could give employees the flexibility and discretion to choose where do you work - maybe you don't have to work from the office, or what hours you work, so flexible work hours. So there's lots of examples of organisations trying to empower, trying to give employees more discretion, more freedom, but they don't necessarily rise to the level of what we think of as 'radically decentralising authority', which we view is really more about severing the hierarchical, superior, subordinate relationship that exists in your traditional hierarchical structures. So fundamentally, it's about eliminating that power, or power-relationship, such that all individuals, all employees have some well-defined basis and source of authority and source of power in the organisation that cannot be superseded or trumped by another individual simply because they are higher in rank or higher in the organisational hierarchy.

And then the second, I think, core piece of the definition is that it has to be organisation-wide. So there are many different organisations, I would say, studies, surveys that were done in the last two decades have shown, I think, 80% of organisations have adopted self-managed teams somewhere in their organisations. And so those are examples where within a subset of the organisation, they've essentially given radically decentralised authority to a group to basically manage themselves and figure out how they go about accomplishing a project or a task. But the rest of the organisation is still fundamentally a hierarchical structure, and so with self-managing organisations, that radical decentralisation of authority really applies to everyone in the organisation: from the bottom to the most senior leaders and former executives in the organisation.

Lisa Gill: I'm wondering, just as a quick aside, because a lot of people complain to me about the term 'self-managing organisation' - partly because they don't know what it means, or it's not immediately obvious, or some people think it means something about managing myself, like managing my time or personal development or something like that. And other people feel that it's kind of cold, or a bit like 'old-management world', because it has 'management' in the title or 'managing' in the title. As someone that was pulling together all this different research, did you have any debates about what term you should use? And why did you land on 'self-managing organisations'?

Michael Y. Lee: Yeah. So I think we did really think about and consider what other terms we could adequately and most appropriately capture this phenomenon. So I think some of the other terms that exist, at least within the academic research, we certainly considered, such as: 'post-bureaucratic organisations', 'organic structures', 'network organisations' - you hear a lot of these different terms that I think exist - I think there's almost too many terms to consider. I think the one that was closest for us that I think really does nicely capture what these organisations do that we ended up not using, is 'bossless organisations', because I think it's very clear what that means and I think really dovetails nicely with our conception or definition of what 'a self-managing organisation' is. So I think that's another term that, in my mind, I use somewhat informally as a kind of substitute for self-managing organisations.

Lisa Gill: Yeah it's quite good shorthand, isn't it? I'm wondering in this paper and perhaps in your research more broadly, what would you say are the key pieces for a self-managing organisation to work? Like, what are some of the elements that organisations and people would need to work on in order to really have it be effective and functioning?

Michael Y. Lee: Yeah, it's a great question. I think my perspective, interestingly, on self-management is that, in many ways, self-management and self-managing organisations are really trying to incorporate, essentially, just effective management, good, effective management that I think every organisation out there is seeking. So in many ways, I think what enables or what are the pieces that make self-management work, are similar to the types of things that would make any organisation a well-run, well-managed organisation. So I think, as an example, you need individuals who are capable and motivated to manage themselves, so as in, if you need senior employees who can lead without necessarily using and leveraging controlling, top-down authority. You need junior employees or less senior employees who can run with responsibility, exercise authority, but do so in a responsible way.

And then I think at a collective level, you need structures and processes and practices at a collective level to both facilitate, I think, coordination and collaboration, which is a bigger issue for self-managing organisations, because self-managing organisations fundamentally trade off some level of control at a collective level for greater freedom at the individual level. So you need the structures and processes and practices to compensate for that, and to facilitate coordination. But I think also, the things you need in a self-managing organisation, or what these structures and processes can also facilitate is to help reinforce the underlying principles of self-management, and reinforce the shift in authority. Because I think what we do know from research in organiaations and management is that, power, even once it's been formally decentralised, has a very very natural and strong tendency to recentralise informally or formally. So, you see that in the way that within organisations, you may say: "Okay, there's no hierarchy", but very quickly, a kind of informal status hierarchy emerges that operates very much like a traditional formal hierarchy. And so I think that that similar dynamic occurs in any organisation that's trying to adopt a self-managing structure. And so these structures and processes can also help to reinforce and mitigate that tendency for power to recentralise.

Lisa Gill: Yeah, and I know that your dissertation recently, a big focus of that was holacracy which is obviously a self-management system designed to help create those structures and processes so that we don't slip back into all power hierarchies. But we'll come back to holacracy in a moment, because I wanted to talk about leadership as well, because I saw that you have been leading a two day program at Harvard on collaborative leadership and building organisations for the future. So what are your thoughts on leadership in self-managing organisations when there are no bosses? What does leadership look like and how can we cultivate the kind of leadership skills that are needed in these kinds of organisations?

Michael Y. Lee: In our course we talk about using three different metaphors. One is the metaphor of 'the Architect' - and so we think of one role of the leader as building the right structures and processes to support self-management, to support empowerment. And I think that this is based on or challenges the often misguided notion that structures are inherently restrictive and coercive, when in reality, I think it's much more about structures can actually be very empowering. So we know from research and creativity, that constraints actually facilitate creativity - if we have a completely blank canvas, that can be very paralysing. But once we have some sense of the frame in which we can operate, that actually helps us exercise, be more creative in that example, but in the case of self-management, I think that the structures can actually help individuals exercise more discretion, exercise more freedom. So, it's about defining and figuring out what is the right balance of structure to, I think, both facilitate that freedom and self-management, but also to help guide and constrain that so that there is the effective coordination of work. Fundamentally, organisations are about getting collective work done, so that is something that these structures can support.

The second metaphor is that of 'the Conductor'. And so for a leader, I think, in a self-managing organisation, they have to realise and sort of adjust to the fact that rather than there being a boss, subordinate relationship, it's much more engaging with each other as self-managing professionals: independent, self-managing professionals, where no individual is the boss, but rather, the work itself becomes the boss. And so, I think when you think about an orchestra conductor, the conductor isn't the boss of any of the individual musicians, the musicians are themselves, they have their part in the orchestra, in the ensemble piece, and they're the experts at what they do. But what the conductor does do is help bring all of these different self-managing professionals together so that their work can work together nicely as a whole.

And then the last, I think, metaphor is that of 'the Coach'. So the leader in self-managing organisations, it's very much about creating a learning environment where people feel safe to experiment, make mistakes, but also that there is accountability. So this isn't purely about not looking the other way, when mistakes are made, it is also about ensuring that there is accountability. And so in many ways, I think that's what a coach does, right? They create an environment where there is learning, and where there is accountability, but it's very much different from a boss.

So I think that those three metaphors are the way I think we think, and I think about leadership in a self-managing structure: Architect, Conductor or Coach, and in many ways, I think, going back to my response to the earlier question, these are, I think, good templates and metaphors for effective management, in any type of structure, in any type of organisation. We talk a lot about managers in hierarchical structures, wanting to be more empowering to make sure that their direct reports are feeling engaged and motivated. And so these traditional, I think, top-down approaches to management, even in hierarchies aren't working and have probably never worked. And so I think these are in many ways, the same principles of leadership and of management that are applicable in any organisation, but I think particularly so in self-managing structures.

Lisa Gill: Yeah, I liked those three metaphors and I'm also thinking that these ideas about leadership, as you say, apply to any kind of organisation, not just a self-managing organisation, and yet it's so fascinating to me that these aren't really new ideas - there have been management and business books written about this stuff for decades I think, and there's clearly a big gap between the theory and the practice. So what are your thoughts on how we can support people as someone who's coming from the education world, for example? How can we train and develop future leaders of organisations with these leadership skills, given that it's not happened yet?

Michael Y. Lee: Yeah, I think in many ways the work that you're doing is obviously hugely important - I think there is an increasing interest in appetite that I see within both practitioners but also within business schools. I think that there is an interest within traditional business schools in this type of topic. You see, I think MBA students coming in, and they're really interested in this, people talk about the generational gap and millennials - potentially this being something that they're more oriented to. I don't know if I actually feel that that's true, but I think that there may be generational shifts that are happening.

But I think it's hard, right? Fundamentally hierarchy is a ubiquitous feature of social life, so if we think about almost every realm of social life, whether that's the family, the schools and the workplace, it's hierarchical, it's structured hierarchically. And so we're so used to that. We're so habituated to operating within that type of structure that, in many ways, the challenge is how do we unlearn all of these habits? And so I think, on the one hand, it's both: there are promising signs of growing interest in this and I also recognise that it's definitely swimming against the stream and it's going to require a lot of work for individuals to overcome that, and also, I think, systemically to really think about how do you redesign our schools to empower and to help individuals develop the skills and the habits of self-management? Again, that question has been around for, I think, centuries as well and I'm partial to the work of American philosopher, John Dewey, who I think his philosophy education was very much about how do we educate individuals to be co-creators of this social life? And I think that in many ways his ideas, while they inspired some change in the educational sector, obviously remain a fringe today. So it's tough.

Lisa Gill: Yeah, it is tough. And I guess on that note as well, in your paper with Amy Edmondson you touched on towards the end a bigger question that's perhaps still being explored and research around: is self-management for everyone? Do you have to have higher psychological levels, or a degree of interpersonal skills? Or in the context of adult development and Robert Keegan's work - this is a question that comes up a lot on this podcast and with people I talk to. What are your thoughts on for whom does self-management work? And if we do need higher levels of these kinds of skills, or cognitive abilities, are they trainable if someone's willing? I'm not talking about imposing things on people, but if someone's willing, are they trainable or is there sometimes too big a gap for it to be workable?

Michael Y. Lee: I think in self-management, going back again to a theme of some of the previous questions; the skills and abilities and mindsets that are needed for effective self-management are probably no different from the skills, abilities and mindsets needed for effective management in a hierarchical structure. I think it's more the issue is that we've become so accepting of mediocre or bad management within hierarchical structures, that we no longer ask ourselves or demand that of managers in a hierarchical structure. But I think what self-managing structures do is they make those deficiencies more apparent. So they make those individuals who have not developed the abilities, skills and mindsets to effectively manage. It becomes very obvious in a kind of self-managing structure such that it's harder to ignore. And so, I do think effective management and effective self-management require levels of psychological development. I like to call it 'the higher game': the ability to lead without control, the maturity to have lower ego and have a certain level of humility, the ability to exercise authority and responsibility - these are all, I think, characteristics of a certain level of psychological development that Bob Kegan, who you mentioned, has written brilliantly about.

And so I think the question of developing that - I do think that there are definitely tools and ways to do that. I think some of the work sounds like you're helping individuals along that journey. But I also think it's probably not as simple as taking a course and picking up some new skills and tools, (although those can be helpful). It is a different type of mindset, it is seeing things from a different type of perspective, that may take I think, much longer and for which there may not be a very clear blueprint. So I think it's both - yes, there are ways and tools and trainings that can be provided and also, I think it's a broader, personal journey as well that is required, that hopefully every individual is engaging on - whether they're working in a self-managing organisation, or in a traditional hierarchical organisation.

Lisa Gill: Yeah, that's interesting. I want to talk about holacracy and your dissertation particularly which you've just finished, so congratulations. What conclusions did you draw from that and what was it about holacracy specifically that sparked your interest and made you think, "Oh, yeah, I want to dig more deeply into that particular self-management system"?

Michael Y. Lee: I came into my dissertation - I had worked in self-managed teams before and had really positive experiences from those work experiences, and yet I was feeling puzzled by how organisations could do this, not just within a team, but at an organisational level. And so, the models of self-management that I had experienced with were more your traditional, consensus-based team models of decision making, which I think have a place and can be incredibly powerful, but don't really work at scale. And so I think when I learned about holacracy, what really drew me to it was that it was a different approach to self-management than traditional approaches to self-management. And I think that's one of the things that is probably one of the bigger misconceptions about self-management; is that self-management is this unitary construct that all organisations who are self-managed are essentially doing a similar thing. And while I think they are doing a similar thing, there are also I think, as many differences in approaches to self-management as there are similarities. And so I think what was intriguing to me about holacracy was the fact that it was a very different approach that was highly structured.

And so what I've learned from my research is that this unique approach has the potential to help organisations resolve a core tension, which is the core tension between coordination and control on the one hand, and individual freedom and autonomy on the other. So organisations are fundamentally trying to balance these two factors, because they need to get their collective work done, but also, individuals fundamentally need some level of autonomy and freedom in order to be satisfied, and in order to stay in the organisation. And so hierarchical structures tend to privilege and prioritise coordination control over freedom and autonomy. Classic self-managing structures tend to do the opposite, and I think the question is, can you do both? Is there some way to resolve this so that you don't have to necessarily trade off? And so what I found was that in at least some cases, organisations can resolve this by utilising these dynamic role structures in ways that enable this coordination of people knowing who does what, but at the same time, these role structures also can help individuals feel more confident in exercising their freedom and authority and discretion. So that's one insight from the research.

But I think the other interesting piece of this is that while it can help resolve this core tension between coordination and freedom, it actually introduces new tensions that, I think, may not have existed before and that don't exist in many organisations. So as an example, in the organisation I studied that adopted holacracy, a new tension arose between individual versus team effort, so that people felt like there was less of an emphasis or an attention paid to the team as a whole and to collaboration, and that's because these individual roles became so much more salient because they were defined, they were made explicit, they were published on this online platform. And so it created this new tension between focus on the individual role versus focus on collective effort.

And another new tension that emerged was that between the formal roles as a source of authority, (meaning that individuals could now go and ask other people to do work because they had a role that was responsible for that), versus cultural values. So the organisation I studied, culture was a very prominent source of power before such that, that guided many people's day to day work. So, doing what's right for the customer, it led people to feel like, "okay, we're going to do this because it's right for the customer". But after they adopted holacracy, the feeling was that those cultural values lost salience and lost power in the organisation, because the formal roles really became the kind of primary source of attention and authority in the organisation. So just to say, I think that the insight, or the takeaway from that is that there is no perfect system, that every system has its own tendencies and can maybe help resolve some tensions, but can introduce new trade offs. And so recognising what the tendencies of those systems are and how that fits with maybe what is important for your particular organisation, and the particular type of work you do, I think is one important thing.

And I think one of the other insights from my research at a different organisation, where we ran a field experiment using holacracy as the treatment and we were looking at - what is the impact of holacracy on individual work outcomes? And what we found is that it's not a panacea; that actually the average person didn't benefit from the adoption of holacracy, but there was a huge degree of variation between individuals; some people really thrived in this structure, and other people really struggled. And so it really highlights that self-management isn't a panacea but it's really hard and it's not necessarily a question of, does it work better for individuals? But I think maybe a better question to ask is, who does it work better for? And when does it work better? And so understanding the conditions under which I think it works, can point us to both organisational readiness for self-management and also where, maybe folks like you; trainers, consultants can focus their attention on helping individuals and groups create the conditions that are going to enable people to thrive in these types of structures.

Lisa Gill: Yeah, that's interesting. I think that panacea thing is a real trap for some people; people adopting self-management because it's the latest trend or they want to be competitive or whatever, and then it kind of becomes about self-management instead of about the purpose of the organisation, and using whatever management system best helps you meet that purpose. So, yeah, I think that's interesting. And yeah, and it's also interesting and something that I've been wondering about; the different contexts in which self-management really works, or is perhaps, maybe less painful to adopt and contexts where it's really, really difficult - and maybe it's possible, but it's going to be really, really tough to get there. Because that's also useful to know, I think.

Michael Y. Lee: What are your insights around those questions?

Lisa Gill: Well, for example, that you mentioned earlier on in the conversation about what senior or more experienced employees need to have in terms of qualities and what junior role or less experienced colleagues need to have. So I think there is something around; if you have a group of people who aren't intrinsically motivated by the work or really passionate about what the organisation does, I think self-management is trickier, because you're asking people to take a lot more responsibility and to think about bigger things. It's not that everyone has to be involved in governance, but you're asking people to a much greater extent to be interested in those things, or the organisation as a whole. And so if you don't care about what the organisation does, for example, you work in a call center, and you've just ended up there because you weren't sure what else to do or whatever, then I think it can become perhaps limiting where you can go with it. And similarly, if people don't have the right competence, and if they're not really skilled at what they're doing, then I think self-management is really tricky too. So there's sort of two things that have come up in conversations I've had.

Michael Y. Lee: Yeah, and those align with some of the preliminary findings from that study; is both of those factors seem to matter. So it's nice that the data that I've collected, sort of aligns well with your own experience and observations.

Lisa Gill: Yeah and I liked what you said as well - that self-managing and traditional organisations, in some ways there's not a huge difference there in terms of tensions, and when you introduce self-management, new tensions emerge. But one of the things that came to mind when you were talking about that, is that self-management, if done well as the system, at least creates an ability to make those things visible, to kind of make explicit what's going on under the surface, and then do something about it. And everyone is charged with the authority to do something about it. Whereas in traditional organisations, you still have tensions, it's just we don't really talk about them and we don't really know what to do with them and we think it's the manager's responsibility to do something with them.

Michael Y. Lee: Yeah, or we're so used to working in these structures that we no longer become aware of them. We've been taking them for granted that those are there and we've accepted them. And so I think that there are a lot of criticisms of self-managing organisations and a lot of scepticism about them; "Oh, they don't work for this" and "They don't do that", and in some way, I think that many of those criticisms have merit, but at the same time, it's like, we've lost our ability to criticise hierarchy, because we've just accepted that as the norm. And so we've sort of assumed that it's working because it sort of is working. Everything is hierarchical. And so I think that there is a kind of higher burden that's placed on these new structures, because it is so different and because it involves such a big change from the sort of dominant habitual ways that we're used to working.

Lisa Gill: Yeah, it makes me think about all this attention about organisations that have chucked out their annual performance appraisal processes, and then people becoming very sceptical about like: "Oh well, if you get rid of that, then it's gonna be chaos" and like, "How do you monitor performance? And how do you stop people from underperforming? And blah, blah, blah". And it's funny that actually that there is little to no evidence that the old system works and it's strange that people are so sceptical of like: "Well prove that an alternative works!", and it's like, well, there's no proof that the existing one works, we're just so used to it, we've just inherited it and we've assumed that that's always been the case, but it's a fairly recent management innovation, and there's not a lot of evidence that it is effective. So it's funny, isn't it? The kind of habit mindset and the fear of anything new or alternative.

I wanted to talk about as well - because I saw that you do this research about global dispersed teams, and how they can develop less hierarchical, more productive dynamics, and that's something that I know a lot of listeners are in that context; where they're in these dispersed teams, and they're wanting to work in a decentralised way, and in some ways, they're setup to do that, but in other ways, it's really, really difficult when you're not face to face. And so what are some of your findings in that field?

Michael Y. Lee: I think globally dispersed teams face a kind of extreme case of the challenge that every team faces, which is: how do you avoid these negative, dysfunctional, hierarchical dynamics from dominating, such as people feeling afraid to speak up? There being not a sense of connection and openness and respect within team members. And so, in this research, we explored and really studied in depth in a case of a globally dispersed team that was dealing with very negative and dysfunctional team dynamics; you had cultural divides, you had national divides that all bridged in, sort of mapped onto hierarchical divide, so there's a huge amount of disconnect in division within the team. And what we observed was that over the course of about two months, three months, they engaged in its intervention that dramatically improved their team dynamics and I think that the key insight from the study of what enabled that change was that what the change or the intervention did was it created a platform for collective risk-taking to occur.

So we know from research that the types of behaviors that are conducive to fostering better team dynamics; speaking up, sharing aspects of your personal life, like getting to know each other as people, talking about difficult challenges at work - these are all risky behaviors in most hierarchical structures, and certainly in a team where these negative dynamics are pre-existing. And so the chance of any one individual enacting these types of behaviors is very low given these risks. So the question is: how do you, as a team, develop an agreement to engage in this risk-taking collectively? Because when you do it collectively, then the risk for any one individual goes way down, because now I know, "Okay, other people are also on board, they're also going to do this".

And so, what we describe - these two components, to creating a platform: one is creating spaces - what we call 'spaces' for this risk-taking to occur. And the key feature of a good, effective space is really that it's separated from your normal everyday work and it doesn't mean that it has to be necessarily outside of the office, although that can be an effective way to create that separation, it can be sort of temporarily separated - so it can be a defined time period where the team can engage in these risky ways together. And also, I think, symbolically also that separation is important, such that, people know that this time and in this space we're engaging in these types of interactions together in a different way than we normally do. So spaces are part of that creating a platform.

I think the second key component of creating that platform for risk-taking is what we call 'an interaction script', and essentially what this is, is just a way of structuring the interactions that gives each person a clear sense of "This is the type of interaction we want to have". So in the case of the particular team that we studied, this manifested as times when they actually were devoted to talking to each other and getting to know each other personally. So they actually had dedicated time to do that and, moreover, they wanted very specific topics that they could talk about together, because they were so uncomfortable with doing that. And so, there were prompts such as, topics that they could discuss with each other to help them feel more comfortable and give them guidance on how to have these conversations.

Another example of a 'script' was that every week the team would get together and each person would answer the same set of questions such as: "how are you feeling about your work? What are the challenges that you're facing?" etc. etc. And so those questions prompted each individual to engage in that kind of open sharing that we know is helpful for facilitating psychological safety and other types of important team dynamics that are typically, I think, risky for an individual to do. And so the scripts really, I think, provide additional guardrails, almost like the training wheels to help individuals know how to actually engage in these risky behaviors and these sort of risky interactions together in a way they wouldn't on their own. And so, the combination or I think, spaces and scripts can be an interesting set of tools for teams to use to facilitate these more positive dynamics. And I think specifically for globally dispersed teams, what we found was that they didn't have to be face to face - these interactions could happen over long distances and in relatively short periods of time. I think there's research that has highlighted the power of site visits and face to face interactions for facilitating these types of dynamics, which, of course, I think can be very powerful, and so we're not saying that you shouldn't actually have face to face time. But we're saying that in addition to that, you can also, (if you can structure your interactions in a way, and create the space for these interactions in a way to facilitate these type of interactions) do that and foster these dynamics, even while you're separated by by long distances.

Lisa Gill: That makes me really happy because it validates academically, something that me and a lot of my colleagues have been practicing and we sort of knew and had some sense that it was viable, but now I feel even more confident. So, really simple things like facilitating check-in rounds, (where you have a check-in question or a check-out). and I know the world of Agile has also kind of adopted a lot of this stuff, or Liberating Structures is another one, and that it's possible to facilitate Liberating Structures online, and using zoom and breakout rooms. So that's really great to hear; 'spaces' and 'interaction scripts' - that's some language that I can use to validate that there's some grounding in this and why it works and why it's helpful.

Michael Y. Lee: Yeah, absolutely. I think that in many ways, that was the intuition that I think drew me to this research and this study. And what's so interesting is, even though we know that these types of check-ins can be very powerful at facilitating connectedness and these sort of good relational dynamics. But yet people are very uncomfortable doing it as well, especially at the beginning. Every individual feels kind of weird to be doing this. And so that's such an interesting edge - that we know it's good, we know it actually leads to good things for teams and for individuals but yet, it's not something we would really do on our own, because it's not comfortable.

Topics in this question

Lisa Gill: Yeah exactly. But it plays into this idea that we've been talking about; about structures helping us as humans. I guess it's in a way overriding things in our brains, like that we're hardwired to avoid social discomfort, that we're hardwired to create hierarchies and stuff. So in some ways, we're helping cheat the brain out of those things until it becomes a new habit because we know that these things are good for collaboration, and that we haven't really learned how to do that with each other in an effective way at scale, I think.

Michael Y. Lee: Yeah I totally agree and that's something that I've thought a lot about; thinking about as organisations and thinking about organisational design, not as necessarily your classic: "are we going to be a functional structure, a divisional structure, a matrix structure?" - so, a kind of macro-organisational design. But thinking about organisational design at a more mezzo level, about how do you create the types of structures, practices and processes to help do exactly what you described, which is to help kind of counter our natural human tendencies and biases, right. And there's so much new research on what our cognitive and emotional biases and tendencies are and so, we are becoming a lot more aware of what these tendencies are, and the negative consequences that many of these tendencies can have in groups and in organisations. And so, I think one thing for organisations to think about and leaders, (goes back to the leaders architect metaphor): how do you create the structures and practices and processes to help counter some of the negative tendencies that humans have because of our hard wiring, and actually steer them into more positive behaviors that we know are going to be better for individuals and teams and organisations?

Lisa Gill: Yeah. On that note, given that we've covered so many interesting things and wonderful insights, if you were to offer a piece of advice to people listening who are somewhere on a journey of being a self-managing organisation, what advice would you give them in terms of how they can, (was the phrase you used before?), how they can create a higher game for themselves in terms of the level of self-management they're practicing?

Michael Y. Lee: You mean as individuals or as collectives?

Lisa Gill: Well, both, either or, whichever you feel called to answer.

Michael Y. Lee: I think what's coming up for me is just encouragement. Just continue on the journey because it's not just that self-management journey, it's the journey of maturation, of development, of wisdom. And so, I think it's clearly a hard journey, and not a non trivial path but it's incredibly rewarding. So whether you're working in a self-managing organisation, or working in a hierarchical structure, we know that these are the types of qualities that are good for teams, that are part of effective leadership. And we know also, I think, from many of the wisdom traditions, that this is also probably just good for individual happiness as well, and individual success. So, I really view self-managing structures and organisations as a helpful lens through which to view and understand things that are important for every organisation. So we can draw lessons from these types of radical approaches and it's not that every organisation needs to adopt a self-managing structure. But it's really about: how can we take some of the principles and insights from these experiments in new ways of organising and realise that actually, we can bring those into any organisation?

So when I talk to managers and leaders it's like: "you could do this tomorrow. You could actually adopt many of these practices tomorrow in your team and organisation without ever calling it 'self-management' or 'holacracy' or anything like that." So I think, not thinking about self-management as this fringe, isolated phenomenon that is irrelevant for the rest of the 99% of organisations that hierarchical, but really viewing it as a continuum that is really, I think, relevant and important for every organisation, every leader to think about.