We have seen the future and it is self-managed


by Milan Moravec, Odd Johannessen, and Thor A. Hjelmas

YEARS AGO, PROJECT management was essentially a matter of documentation and control. The project manager, who reported directly upward to one or more senior line managers, did the documenting and controlling of project scope, time and duration of activities, costs, quality, staffing and risk. Project goals were usually determined by senior management.

But as hierarchies began to crumble, weakened by their own top-heaviness, the project manager became more of a delegator. He or she was responsible for communicating (and sometimes determining) goals, putting in place the tools to control the project, seeing that the right people were in the right place to roll it out, and encouraging teamwork.

You might expect this trend to continue, with project managers gaining autonomy and expanding their roles. What's often happening, however, is that their roles are shrinking. They may even be asked to make themselves gradually invisible. Although they exercise leadership initially, they may become team members and begin turning meeting leadership over to others.

Is this backsliding? No, it's the era of self-managed teams. With SMTs in place, project management becomes a team endeavor rather than the responsibility of one person.

SMTs go far beyond the team-building concept. They differ from working groups and other teams in several important respects:

First, SMTs, which share a common vision and purpose, make their own task assignments, set their own standards, and determine how they will organize themselves to get the work done. They also take responsibility for settling differences among members.

Second, team members rotate project leadership roles. One may take the helm for a time, then turn it over to another as a different kind of expertise is called for. In a mature SMT, members have complementary technical or functional expertise and take full advantage of synergy.

Third, everyone has access to the same information. Team members volunteer feedback to each other and share knowledge. Discussion is open-ended yet always focused on the goal of serving the customer.

Finally, team members hold themselves mutually accountable for specific group deliverables. They measure performance by assessing these collective work products.

Resistance to SMTs: The BP Norge Story. As teams are shown to outperform individuals, creating the high-performance SMT has become a key idea in management circles. Businesses that have successfully initiated SMTs report greater productivity, responsiveness and creativity. The idea of SMTs is obvious, but the discipline they imply is not. Not every company is successful in implementing SMTs, which require significantly new processes, attitudes and behavior. Though members may have graduated from the School of Individual Endeavor, they are now asked to hold themselves mutually responsible for achieving a set of performance goals—goals they have determined for themselves. With rotating leadership and interdependence, members have to rely on trust instead of power or orders from above. Not surprisingly, such an approach wreaks havoc with tradition.

At BP Norge, the Norwegian arm of British Petroleum, we had first-hand experience with the difficulty of implementing SMTs. The first time we tried, in fact, the reception was colder than the North Sea.

We had thought we were prepared. Although BP had been very successful as a hierarchical organization, management understood the need for change. The company had to find new solutions for locating and developing oil and gas reserves, and that required more flexibility and innovation as well as a reduction in costs and cycle time. With reengineering eliminating several layers of management, we knew that BP had to become an efficient network of collaborative individuals assuming leadership and working together, ultimately across functions.

At BP Norge, we had identified issues for SMTs to address and had linked the SMT concept with the vision, values and business strategy. We were ready to “Just Do It!”…except that we didn't know how to make the transition. Somehow, after months of talk, the SMT concept was still mired in opinions and alternatives. What was worse, resistance had grown as a result of this floundering around. From managers down to technicians, people had become disillusioned about what they understood SMTs to be. They questioned the credibility of their leaders. The pervasive sense of helplessness and mistrust was eroding performance opportunity.

You might expect that the trend of project managers gaining autonomy and expanding their roles would continue. But what's often happening is that their roles are shrinking. They may even be asked to make themselves gradually invisible. They may become team members and begin turning meeting leadership over to others. Is this backsliding? No, it's the era of self-managed teams.

When we decided to make another attempt at getting SMTs off the ground, people were cynical. The typical attitude was, “We tried it and it didn't work. What makes you think you can make it work this time? And besides, what's in it for me?” Others were convinced that their current working groups were self-managed teams already. Our challenge was substantial.

This time, however, we had a plan, a structure, a discipline—simple and straightforward enough to appeal to employees at all levels as well as to the business strategists. Our approach, which required an SMT expert collaborating closely with Norwegian managers, involved a two-day workshop designed to clear up confusion quickly and move into action. We were successful this time around.


Lessons From the Trenches. Many of the lessons we learned during this endeavor have clear implications for project management. For example:

1. Working groups do not become self-managed teams by decree. “Just do it” isn't enough. The transition requires training of leaders and an explicit, step-by-step process in which each member begins making decisions from the start.

Participants in our workshop were asked to prepare with pre-work, which included viewing videos about successful SMTs in other organizations and interviewing others in BP Norge to find out what people were saying about SMTs. In the workshop itself, they identified what they needed to know about SMTs, what skills each needed to learn to be successful in such an enterprise, and the order in which various responsibilities should be taken on by the teams.

2. Sponsors—usually senior management— need to do more than just “show the flag” with a launch meeting and an occasional e-mail. They need to be active in the project management process. They have to be in a position to get behind unpopular decisions as well as popular ones to help with the transition to SMTs.

To ensure that the greatest impact can be leveraged from the sponsor's position, the sponsor needs to be managed. But how do project leaders and sponsors come to an understanding of the sponsor's role? At BP Norge, we had stakeholders—the design committee, potential team leaders, and offshore installation managers—complete an assessment instrument to identify strengths of sponsorship: How clear is the sponsor on what needs to be changed with the introduction of SMTs? How well does the sponsor understand which processes are affected? How willing is the sponsor to commit the necessary resources? The results were fed back to the sponsors so they would know where they needed to focus more attention.

Sponsors need to meet with teams regularly, use monitoring procedures to track progress, and demonstrate their commitment to team deliverables by giving them high priority. At BP Norge, they participated in the workshops and checked up informally by asking the other participants, “What did you learn today? What are you doing now to get the self-managed teams going? Give me some examples. What kind of help can I give you?” A project manager or team leader cannot be successful without this active support and participation.

The boundaries between sponsor and self-managed team are (or should be) permeable. And as teams evolve, so does the role of the sponsor, who must manage pockets of resistance and build on pockets of support.

3. Because SMTs are so different from regular working groups or teams and require such a different mindset, resistance is inevitable. Moving from “I” to “we” contradicts everything we've been taught about standing out as individuals and being competitive. Project managers, who may have to give up some control, may find themselves having to manage their own resistance as well as that of others. In our workshop at BP Norge participants learned to separate themselves from their roles and to distinguish between their personal reactions to change and the changes themselves—what was actually taking place.

It helps to realize that resistance is a normal, inevitable stage that organizations go through when they make the transition to SMTs. It may be characterized by denial (“we don't need this”) and then by anxiety, anger, or apathy. Management, team leaders and team members may claim that “they” (one or both of the other groups) aren't ready for SMTs. It's a convenient excuse for putting off action.

To get past the resistance stage, people need to allow dissent to surface and be discussed. Open and honest communication, without repercussions, is essential. The project can then move to the next stages: exploration, which requires letting go of old ideas, investigating new ones, and defining roles; and commitment, which results in performance improvement.

The Project Manager's Shifting Role. The leader of a self-managed team is a project manager, although the role does not look quite like traditional project management.

When we began the process of selecting the initial team leaders at BP Norge, we used the following interview scenario to determine how people understood this dynamic role:

Two years have elapsed since you became a team leader for the introduction and implementation of self-managed teams.You are now leaving your SMT leader role. You pause to think back over the past two years. What legacy will you have left behind on your self-managed team? What are the team members, and your boss, saying about your legacy? What advice would you give the individual selected to replace you on the SMT?

We then asked some questions that highlight the responsibilities the SMT leader needs to assume:

What criteria do you plan to use to select the best members for your SMT?

What type of resistance do you believe team members will have, and what do you plan to do to deal with this resistance?

What will the SMT have going for it as it is introduced and implemented?

What, specifically, can the sponsors do to help with implementation?

What measures will you use to assess your effectiveness as a team leader?

Any project manager who is about to become involved in SMTs ought to ask himself or herself the same questions.

Certain skills and competencies, besides the technical ones, are essential for the project manager as SMT leader:

Risk taking—Making risk (bringing about risk situations by pushing technology, for example) and creating opportunity.

Communication—A huge portion of the project manager's communication must be about emotion—how the SMT process makes people feel. Also important are active listening and the ability to give honest, tactful and useful feedback.

Ability to make things happen, including the active participation of sponsors.

Teaching and learning—Especially those things that team members and leaders find difficult.

Influencing and being influenced.

Ability to thrive on and manage differences to improve the quality of decision-making, and to address conflict squarely (the threat that everyone perceives but no one talks about is more debilitating than an openly discussed problem).

Performance management—Rather than emphasizing now and tomorrow, the urgent rather than the truly important, the SMT project manager and team must plan for and manage important tasks that will affect the life of the project.

Group planning and decision making—More than team building, this involves understanding different roles and ensuring that the team is accountable as a unit for all deliverables.

Relating to client groups—Ability to stand outside the project and view it objectively, and not be trapped by one's own stake in the past.

SMT leaders need to assess the level of their skills and competencies in these areas so they can determine where they can use training and coaching. Adults learn best when they perceive the need, so just-in-time training is appropriate.

SELF-MANAGEMENT REFERS to individual members as well as the team. Each member needs to develop the qualities of a leader: risk taking (as opposed to risk controlling), openness to new ideas and pathways, going beyond the “next logical step.” The SMT itself, as a vehicle for organizational transformation and leadership development, represents the next step in project management beyond simple teamwork. img

Milan Moravec of Moravec and Associates, Walnut Creek, Calif. (510/937-5461), works with organizations to improve project and organizational effectiveness.

Odd Jan Johannesse is the principal of Feedback Fundamentals Scandinavia of Stavanger, Norway.

Thor A Hjelmas is production manager at BP Norge of Stavanger, Norway.

PM Network • September 1997



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