The road towards “effortless” management

A lot of companies talk about self-management. It’s one of the trendy things for young businesses to say, especially here in Stockholm.

Everyone who knows me — and especially those who work with me — will tell you that self-management is an obsession of mine. As Mpya Digital continues to grow, we have been looking at how to create a sustainable model of scaling self management based on teamwork and trust.

A lot of companies talk about self-management. It’s one of the trendy things for young businesses to say, especially here in Stockholm.

Without wanting to disparage these organisations, often it’s about making themselves look good by paying lip service to the latest buzz. They think they are creating democracies with no management structure where everyone is equal and employees are encouraged to contribute their own ideas.

But it’s bigger and more complicated than simply adapting your company culture to make the executive team feel good. Calling yourself “agile” and banishing the words “manager” and “director” from job descriptions does not make your organisation flat.

For me, TRUE self-management is all about trust.

It is about how you act with one another. About gathering diverse perspectives to develop and deliver meaningful initiatives that will benefit the whole company. Trusting those who know the business best to make the important decisions.

Actually, self-management as a concept is anything but new.

Plenty of successful companies have been doing it for decades — and are still doing it now.

Going back much further, early versions of self-management can be found in ancient civilizations. The Chinese “Book of Change”, written over 5000 years ago, refers to “effortless” management. I love this quote:

There are many dragons without a leader and it is “good fortune”. Dragons are the leaders. Lots of leaders together and yet there is no one particular overriding leader.

Confucius and Mencius are still influential today. They talk about morals and self-independence first, leading to love and a willingness to touch the lives and behaviors of others, thereby achieving “effortless management” where everyone behaves well and according to their own will.

But in today’s modern organisations the biggest misconception is that everyone can do what they like all of the time.

For a self-management model to be successful, individual responsibilities and a collective purpose need to be crystal clear — more so, even, than in a traditional hierarchy. Yes, there can be fluidity in the execution and creativity in the decision-making, but the parameters within roles and objectives need universal agreement.

One of the main issues in my experience is that even taking the word “manager” away from a job description doesn’t prevent certain people from acting like one.

Hierarchies are entrenched, not only in businesses but deep in people’s psyches. Subconscious authority or submissiveness is hidden within us all no matter how hard we try to suppress it.

Put simply: Old habits die hard.

Many people are ingrained to command rather than inspire. They delegate, they don’t collaborate. These are natural instincts in our current society that are tough to shake.

Truly great managers, regardless of the organisation they are in, make it less about the hierarchy and more about the teamwork they can encourage to flourish. Their job title is ultimately irrelevant. They become role models rather than conventional leaders.

More often, poor understanding of what being a role model means creates “hidden” hierarchies — and that can be even more dangerous than the traditional model of authority you are trying so hard to avoid. It leads to unofficial “gatekeepers” that are even harder to navigate around. Self-management becomes impossible because nobody feels they are empowered to make decisions. Everything gets kicked upstairs to the CEO who finds himself signing off on new stationery requests and company quiz nights.

It becomes like a benign dictatorship.

Often, it comes down to money. Initiatives that are risk-free and cost nothing are approved in glowing terms. But if somebody has an idea that requires investment or risk, there is a reticence to support it.

A truly self-managed system creates limitless opportunity for creativity.

At Mpya Digital, we are committed to achieve true self management — although we are under no illusions that this will be easy.

We need to change the way the traditional model works by focusing on people rather than perfect processes and measurability. This will create deep understanding and alignment rather than a “conveyor belt” system where people can be replaced.

For us this means helping new colleagues discover more about the general business and our shared company vision as well as their unique individual goals. Our hope is that will allow people to feel they can contribute ideas and initiatives within a framework of trust and encouragement.

The ownership of each initiative rests solely with the person taking it. They have a responsibility to collect perspectives and feedback from well-placed colleagues in order to establish its viability.

Initiatives with minimal risks and investment are typically easy to roll out. As risk and investment levels increase, the initiative-taker must seek a deeper holistic understanding and more perspectives to create a better-informed decision.

But ultimately, the initiative taker is still empowered to make that decision.

I want to again stress that I don’t have all the answers yet. What we do know is that we are trying to build a company with a trusting environment. One where creativity can flourish and everyone is committed to supporting one another. A pillar of our “work is joy” vision which everything is ultimately about.

Self-management is how we believe we will get there.

Article by our CEO Christoffer Öberg.

Mpya Digital is an IT consultancy in Stockholm, Sweden. It is an organization made by — and continuously improved by — the people in it.