NSM Focus | More grip on your work? Self-organising teams are the answer!

In January, the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) published a report entitled ‘Better Work’. Their conclusion: satisfying work gives people a grip on their finances, their work, and their life. To ensure better grip on work, the Council advocates granting employees more autonomy and control. Patrick Vermeulen, Professor of Organization Development and New Organizational Forms and academic director of the Radboud Management Academy (RMa), agrees, but believes some historical context is required.

“All of WRR’s insights and recommendations derive directly from Sociotechnical Systems, an organisational theory developed in the 1940s and taught in Nijmegen for the past thirty years. Among other things, this theory gave rise to self-organising teams, which have become incredibly popular in the past decade.”

Autonomy and responsibility

Patrick VermeulenThe central question within Sociotechnical Systems is how to design an organisation that leads to better quality. The answer, in a nutshell, is to reduce internal complexity and increase the self-organising capacity of employees. In other words, instead of simple tasks in a complex organisation, aim for complex and meaningful tasks in a simple organisation.

“If you cut up work processes into lots of small chunks, employees are only responsible for a small part of the whole, and they don’t feel that they contribute significantly to the final result. What’s more, cutting up tasks requires a series of attuning relations that further reduce people’s autonomy. By making employees responsible for a more extensive work process, you simplify organisational culture, create more interesting work, and make optimal use of people’s professional skills. Organisations that are good at this see a rise in employee satisfaction, a reduction in absenteeism, and an increase in product and service quality and customer satisfaction.”

Three to five years

Less absenteeism, more satisfaction and quality. Sounds attractive. “But it’s also a challenge that’s often underestimated,” warns Vermeulen. “Creating an entirely new organisational structure and preparing everyone for the switch requires not only sound professional business knowledge, but also a lot of time and energy. It will take at least three to five years.”

It begins with mapping the division of tasks. What do work processes look like, from start to finish? Who does what? Who’s responsible for what? And who’s accountable to whom? “You then have to redistribute task sequences and responsibilities across the teams. All team members must be well trained and coached through the process. This in turn requires managers who understand precisely how the new organisation is designed and why this is a good idea. In other words, it’s a complex puzzle. And we’re not even talking about how hard it is to break old habits.”

No islands

Teams get more responsibility, more room to manoeuvre and more say, which means managers have to partially let go of control. “The managers’ key tasks become coaching, facilitation, and support. They have to stimulate learning and growth among team members and take on the tasks and responsibilities their teams cannot handle. In addition, it’s important that they collaborate with other team managers in leading organisation-wide processes and ensuring that all teams feel part of the organisation as a whole. After all, autonomy should not go so far as to create groups of small islands.”

More grip

It is no coincidence that self-organising teams have become so popular in the healthcare sector, with its vast array of rules and regulations, says Vermeulen. “Healthcare professionals sometimes spend more time accounting for their tasks than providing actual care. Luckily, a growing number of organisations are becoming aware of the need to turn the tide and give their professionals more grip on their work, as advised by WRR. Even though many mistakes are still being made. I sometimes hear about organisations that try to switch to self-organising teams within a year. Or organisations where the change is driven not by a wish for improved quality, but by budget cuts. Such organisations simply eliminate a management layer and tell their employees: it’s up to you now. This clearly doesn’t work. It all begins with understanding the underlying organisational principles. It’s not for nothing we’ve been offering this knowledge for over three decades.” JvdB

If you are interested in how self-organising teams work in practice, you can read about healthcare institution Philadelphia here.