Ave Group Oy

Self Direction – an oasis in the desert or only a mirage?

Self-direction, lean operations, agile development, Teams of Teams, and diverse ways of working, to name a few, are buzzwords and phenomena in organizations today. Needless to say, these are all highly desirable and great concepts, but organizations’ everyday reality and readiness to implement these is often lacking. Genuine self-direction is also a prerequisite for the other words on the list. In all models and when trying to change the ways of working, there is a great chance that the emperor will get new clothes, but the real way of acting and thinking will not change. Then it becomes an -ism only.

Unanimous in all of the above is that decision-making is decentralized, and wisdom does not exist only at the top organizational level. Team of Teams is built largely on the experiences and practices of U.S. military special forces. Operations failed due to separate units and departments each operating in their own way and inconsistent situational awareness across the board and at every organizational level. They realized that operations were far too complex to be able to react quickly enough while utilizing traditional and hierarchical organizational structures where information resides at the top and even small decisions are made too high in the organization. It became necessary to reduce hierarchy, improve the flow of information, and speed up decision-making and response. Sounds good!  

Our own experience shows that most organizations have the same challenges. Whether we call our leadership model a Team of teams, a self-directed organization, or an inverted pyramid doesn’t matter, but essential is the way we actually operate. A few basics must be in place before the desired culture can emerge.

Ask first what I can do for the common good and others and only then, what others can do for me.

During a crisis, every person truly internalizes and understands that alone nothing can be achieved. What we do affects others and we also need everyone else to survive and accomplish assigned tasks. Soloing can result in paying the highest possible price.

John F. Kennedy’s often quoted words, “Don’t ask what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country” must yet be part of every successful culture’s DNA. Whether it is a company, government organization, sports team, or another community.

In professional organizations, the expertise of individuals easily becomes a challenge. We should understand that by sharing our individual expertise for the benefit of others, we ensure our best possible success. We acquire knowledge and expertise to guarantee our common success, not only for ourselves and our personal future success. Our knowledge should be available for others to utilize. Sounds easy, but in reality, this requires a lot of the culture and each individual. Above all, it requires trust! This should be reflected in our individual decisions, even the small ones. When we want to work remotely, are we thinking about the day based on what is most suitable for ourselves, or do we think first about what is best for the whole? How do our own choices and actions affect others and the whole? It doesn’t work to think only about what suits us as individuals but the starting point must be what we each need to do so that we can help others as much as possible and contribute to achieving a common goal.

Reliability and trust

Reliability is born when we keep our word, do what we promise, take care of our work. This is absolutely essential in an organization. However, more important is building true trust. In practice, this means that especially top management are examples to everyone and dare to show vulnerability by admitting personal weaknesses and taking responsibility for mistakes and failures, and not punishing others for making mistakes. The fact is we all make mistakes and fail. The question is whether we dare to openly admit and discuss it. If we dare, it will, first of all, enable joint learning and, through this, the best possible outcome. This also protects our community. Here control doesn’t work!

Leaders – not a manager

Under no circumstances is the individual greater than the community, regardless of status, position, or role. Nor can leadership be thought of as a position, but rather as a responsibility and an enabler. Leadership should be part of each individual. It is impossible to overemphasize the power of example. If our actions as an individual do not reflect common values, our own words, common game rules and practices, these actions destroy rather than build. Are we willing to give up our benefit so others may benefit? Are we willing to do undesirable tasks because others need to be able to focus on a more essential task right now? Are we prepared to give up our advantage and the things we consider important to take on a supportive role because the current situation calls for a shift of focus to other areas right now? Are we always ready to help and support others? Human perception is rising to an even bigger role. What we are as individuals and how we relate to others is a very important question.

Common priorities and objectives

Every person in an organization should have a clear understanding of the common objectives and priorities. This enables the creation of team-specific and individual goals. We should remember that, according to research, annual targets do not significantly guide activities. This is a process that needs to be clarified on a weekly basis.

Ensure that situational awareness is consistent in all situations

Everyone should maintain the same situational picture in all situations. Creating a common situational understanding momentarily is always easier than maintaining it. If everyone assesses the situation based on their own views and situation, there is no way teams and individuals can make the right decisions and choices. Necessary transparency in terms of information sharing, decision making, and responsibilities requires a strong trust. How many projects have failed because everyone hasn’t had a unified view and understanding of the situation, rather we have made assumptions.

It is important to remember that situational awareness cannot remain constant unless everyone actively works towards it. Nor will we succeed, unless we have practices, processes, structures, and media for maintaining the situational picture and sharing information.  A unified situational picture also greatly increases everyone’s sense of basic security. Uncertainty, on the other hand, destroys it.

Common game rules and procedures

Creating common game rules for our team isn’t enough but certain game rules must be consistent throughout the entire organization or the link will inevitably break at some point. There is no point in talking about the rules of the game if we do not understand why our community, organization, and team exists at all or what our values are. Values are not a compromise or some mandatory exercise, but they should genuinely describe what we believe in, how we act even when no one else sees us, and on what basis we make decisions quickly when necessary in challenging situations.

Competence

Self-direction is impossible without a sufficient personal level of competence. Competence is easily perceived as a respect-charged issue tempting us to pretend to be more skilled than we really are. For example, in meetings, we don’t ask questions about things we do not understand but may clarify things afterward. With real trust, we dare to ask stupid questions that contribute to everyone’s skills. Assessing and discussing competence together is extremely important. Both in the supervisor-subordinate relationship and at the collegial level. If there isn’t a sufficient level of competence, the quality of decisions, prioritization, and evaluation will be unsuccessful.

Commitment

In practice, commitment arises from two different factors: self-confidence and motivation. The single most important task of a supervisor is to strengthen the self-confidence of their team members and ensure that they are motivated to complete tasks and achieve set goals. This enables learning and development at the individual level, which in turn contributes to the development of the entire organization. Self-confidence increases confidence and confidence makes operations more efficient.

During leadership coaching I often ask this question. What motivates members of your team? Although indirect discussions may have taken place, rarely has anyone had concrete discussions about how motivating personal goals and tasks are to individual team members. We all realize that everything doesn’t motivate us equally. This in turn inevitably affects what we do.

New types of organizational structures

Position is power. Do what I say, because I’m your boss. A multi-tiered and rigid organization doesn’t work. Decisions need to be made where things happen. In practice, this means making decisions lower in organizational structures. Again, this is not possible using old practices but requires that the whole culture changes. Leadership and management must rise to a whole new level. Leadership also demands new skills for leading virtual teams. The terms engagement, coaching, mentoring, leadership by example, resilience, fairness and equality, collaboration between teams, communication, assisting, and confirming are taking on a whole new meaning and need to be truly visible in practice. Simultaneously, as an individual’s possibilities to influence grow within an organization, concrete action is required of each individual. Are you ready to rise to the challenge?

Pekko Nieminen

The author is an experienced management coach and developer of organizational culture, whose professional passion is to create a lasting competitive advantage for organizations through organizational culture.

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