Posted by: rayseghers | August 15, 2009

Self-directed teams or self-destructing teams?

Several years ago the concept of Self-directed teams was the OD solution du jour.  Well, why not?  This was the embodiment of empowerment and participation.  This should have been the pinnacle of group functioning.  So, why did most of these teams self-destruct instead?

When Rensis Likert introduced his System 1 (Authoritarian) – System 4 (Participative) theory of management, it begged the question of what lay beyond.  Were there other systems?  Well, in fact, Ren did propose System 5.  This was a system of collegial relationships where everyone participated equally toward a common goal.  Others used the term System 0 to denote a situation with no leadership and no structure – utter chaos.

Well, when organizations embraced the concept of Self-directed teams they envisioned a System 5 type situation but what they usually got was System 0.  If System 5 failed why didn’t the groups slip to System 4?  How could they leap to System 0?

If you think of System 1 – System 4 as a linear relationship, as it was usually presented, it was obvious that System 0 and System 5 just extended the length of the line in both directions.  In theory, System 0 and System 5 were about as far apart as you could get. 


                                          Sys 0—–Sys 1—–Sys 2—–Sys 3—–Sys 4—–Sys 5


But were they?  The reality became clearer when you pictured the range of systems not as a straight line but as a circle.  Now System 0 and System 5 were right next to each other. 

                                                                    Sys 0—–Sys 5

                                                               /                               \

                                                          Sys 1                            Sys 4

                                                              \                               /

                                                                   Sys 2—–Sys 3

But how could that be?  Well, the structure of the two systems is fairly similar.  In fact, to an outside disinterested observer it would be difficult to distinguish between the two – at least until you looked at the way that they functioned and at their productivity.

System 5 self-directed teams were characterized by a situation where there was no need for structure and where everyone provided leadership – all working together in harmony toward a common well-defined goal.

System 0 self-destructing teams were characterized by a situation where there was no structure, but no one provided leadership – no one working together and without a well-defined goal.

Organizations mistook the similarity of structure (or lack thereof) for the similarity of functioning.  Can System 5 self-directed teams work?  Yes, but I think they are the exception rather than the rule.  Organizations that consider creating self-directed teams must remember that these teams must still mesh with the goals of the rest of the organization.  True, they must be given the necessary authority and autonomy, but they must also accept the responsibility.

So what do you think?




  1. Having studied and practiced Socio-Technical Systems design for many years — which generally advocates the use of Self Directed Work Teams, my perception and experiences are that there are many misconceptions of what this concept actually entails, and how to successfully implement such a system. Hence, there are indeed, many routes to failure. Here are the two most common sources of failure I’ve encountered:

    1. Although the team is called Self-Directed, there is one employee who is appointed ‘team leader’ or ‘team coordinator’. This individual performs many or most of the roles of a traditional supervisor — checking attendance and time-keeping, performance ‘coaching’, filling out reports, securing resources, interfacing between the team and management, monitoring quality and so on.

    2. The team is implemented in the way that you describe — no system, no structure, no role definition, no common vision, and little or no real understanding of the strategy, priorities and goals of the overall organisation.

    We have implemented successful, true Self Directed Work Teams — both throughout entire organisations and/or within functions and departments. It is no small undertaking, and it is far easier to accomplish in a Greenfield site.

    First, we conduct several workshops with all management who will be involved and the Union if the facility is unionised (as the union will have to sign off on many unconventional changes to working assumptions, rules and practices). The main purpose of the workshops is to educated everyone on theory and practice of launching and sustaining high performance SDWTs, making decisions about how radical a system they want to implement — what supervisory and other R&Rs the teams will absorb; specifically what authority and autonomy they will be given — what they can decide themselves and what should remain management decisions. Additionally, systems such as objective-setting, performance appraisal, employee development, compensation and information sharing must be significantly altered to support SDWTs. Finally, this Management /(Union) group need to get very clear and aligned behind company Vision and goals.

    Finally, we conduct two or three weeks of education and training (or longer) for all employees who will be involved. (We have management and union members conduct various portions). This training typically covers the following areas:

    > Vision, priorities and goals of the company
    — how these will be deployed into team objectives.
    > Key competitive and market challenges
    > Quality standards and how they are measured; how the company compares with competitors in terms of quality, productivity and other metrics.
    > WHY the company is implementing SDWTs
    > The company’s/union’s decisions about SDWTs
    — Concept, structure, roles and
    responsibilities, authority and boundaries
    — How they will be integrated into the overall
    > How key systems will be modified to support
    > How to carry out any administrative functions
    they must perform

    We also form and launch the work teams — facilitating them in forming their own visions/purposes, (and within the scope, boundaries and guidelines determined by the management/union team) agreeing collective and individual R&Rs, and establishing work processes and practices. We also ensure they receive any information they believe is important to know and understand.

  2. Ray;

    This is astonishing. I just came across this latest item in your Word Press Blog while browsing updates. (For original Reference go to: )

    As you know, I have always been a Likert fan from my very beginnings in OD. And, at the end of my work life, when I was asked to prepare a Morale Recommendation Paper for one of the largest product development organizations in the country, I built the “recommendation” around the “promulgating and promotion of collegial relationships.” Either I picked up on the “collegial relationships” concept early on from “New Patterns in Management” or during my literature and analytical research done regarding the “Continuing Education of Scientists and Engineers” for the NSF. And, actually, during this investigation, there was one very excellent example at the National Bureau of Standards and Institute of Applied Technology from whence the Malcolm Baldridge of Excellence Evaluations Series and related Awards were originated.

    And, I obviously agree, as you say, System 5 is a continuation of the opposites (Authoritarian and Participative) in two different directions, and is as far away from System 0 (self destructive, or authoritarian to infinity) as one could get. And, System 5 just happens to be the “recent, new” Self directed concept which takes on great meaning in the newer Transformed, Flat Organizations.

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention, and thanks for the other contributions in your Blog, like those relating to the use of scales. Now I will read all of them carefully.

    I hope you won’t mind, I’d like to send this to Bob Ebers and Matt Barney, two others of my Connections who are interested in Performance and Team evaluations, and who might be interested in this comment and following your Blog, also

    Best wishes,

    Bill LeGray

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