Modern day self-directed work teams

Back in the 1980’s and 90’s, before switching my focus to sustainability, I was a management consultant focusing on self-directed work teams: front line employees, typically in cross functional teams, empowered to make important management decisions. For 10 years, Marsha Willard and I hosted the Symposium on Self-Direction and published several books on teams.

Like any movement, we had our heroes like Ricardo Semler of Semco (read Maverick) and Ralph Stayer of Johnsonville Foods (read Flight of the Buffalo) who stopped being The Boss to let their employees lead. Roger Sant and Dennis Bakke started AES with the intention of radical accountability, front line employees making multimillion dollar deals, deciding to buy a power plant or not. They ran afoul of the SEC which made them list this cultural value of “having fun” as a risk factor.

We were inspired by the Mondragon Cooperatives, worker owned cooperatives on an industrial scale. All of this was built on the sociology-technical systems research done around WWII at Tavistock where researchers were trying to understand how to improve English coal production during the war.

It was a great win, win, win: managers got better performance, customers got better quality and employees had more control. It seemed an incontrovertible law to move from autocratic manager-knows-best leadership to shared leadership.

So imagine my surprise when in the 2000’s this model of empowerment shifted away from a trend toward organizational democracy,  and instead devolved into “employee engagement.” Managers asking employees to get onboard with what THEY expected. At most, asking for input but not handing over real authority. And in some cases, autocratic nerds created toxic workplaces.

But a recent TED Talk gives me hope that these leadership practices are being resurrected. Staid, old companies needing to be more flexible are mimicking start ups, putting people in cross functional teams and giving them the power to innovate. Hmmm, where did I hear that before?

What are you willing to give up to change the way we work?


Posted by Sustainability Alliance