Home » Team Management » Self-Managing Teams In Project Management? Is That Possible?

The project manager needs to control and direct her team with the help of her project management tools. The notion of a self-managing team seems to undermine the ability of the project manager to control and direct. What is really going on here?

I always thought it was a curious notion, the self-organizing or self-managing team.  What the heck was that?  How could we not have a leader or otherwise someone with authority to make hard decisions or resolve disagreements when needed? I’ve seen many gaggles of people who I doubt had any notion of self direction!

What Is Self-Managing Project Management Teams All About?Leadership is paramount I was sure. There is only one catch I realize.  The leader can’t do everything.  In fact, the leader can rarely do much of anything, but provide motivation and guidance. Which means most good team are in fact good because they pretty much run themselves.  OK, I’m beginning see some merit here.

In Putting Your Project Management Team At Risk I mention how I would get my teams so well organized and targeted, that I literally didn’t have to do much of anything.  This, I thought, was the pinnacle of good management.  Think about it.  If the team can operate most of the time without their “leader” then what we have is a self-managing team.  The team does have direction and guidance it is following.   Within that direction and guidance, they are free to operate pretty much as they see fit.  Even innovating is acceptable, as long as it doesn’t violate their boundaries or primary mission.

I’ve written that in some successful projects I’ve never told people how long or how hard to work.  In some cases I never called a meeting and these were year long projects (see The Leap To Exceptional).  In my own writings I find I keep having to change all the “I”s to “we” because, when I think about it, while I may have laid out a plan or set up a strategy, the actual work – that resulted in the success – was always a group of people other than just me.

One of the big things I regularly talk about is getting the schedule right for a project.  Usually, to get a team or organization on the right track with schedules, I first have to remove some bad management practices or otherwise work around them.  What I’ve often found however, is that when I free a team from “downward directed schedules” the team doesn’t do any better at setting their own schedule.  At this point in a team’s development I usually need to give them some guidance – often being very directive – on how to put together a schedule estimate.   Once they have a technique that works – and they know why it works – I am then not too worried about the schedule they produce.

Self-Managing Teams Work Independently But With GuidanceSo I came to realize that many of my successes were because I was creating a self-managing team.  The team was given some fairly specific guidance on how to go about their business, but once they learned the approach, they were free to set their own schedules and priorities. (See also Being Slightly Out Of Control Is A Good Thing).

One of the other self-managing things I’ve always done is to ask people to first do a good job and then get the task completed.  This almost always startled both the people I asked as well as the other managers.  In one case, once I stressed in a very time limited situation that we needed a rock solid fix to a problem first and then get it done as fast as possible, I had another manager call me up on the phone and berate me for stressing that we needed good quality first.  He said that quality is always understood and hence should never be mentioned!   I could also tell that, since he too had also been pushing the team, he felt  that since I emphasized quality and he did not it had made it seem like he only cared about the schedule.

The folks I worked with over the years would consistently tell me that I was the only one who ever actually asked for good quality and actually meant it.  I came to realize that by asking for quality first, I was giving the individual (or team) the right to self-management and they got to decide when it was good enough to release the product or declare the project complete.  (For additional ideas, see Ron Armstrong’s article on Requirements of a Self-Managed Team Leader.)

Helping a team become self-managing is about giving them the direction and guidance they need to be successful. While it may seem like we are giving up some control, we are in fact empowering them to act with energy and innovativeness while being grounded by strategy, methodology and goals.

Thank you for sharing!

13 thoughts on “Self-Managing Teams In Project Management? Is That Possible?

  1. Bruce Benson says:


    Thanks for the reference. I’ve always leaned on Myers-Briggs (http://www.myersbriggs.org/) for my insights into personalities and teams. Thanks for the reference, it looks interesting. I’ve added it to my reading list.



  2. Very interesting discussion so far. If somebody needs resource on T-shaped people and personnas, you can try this one: http://bit.ly/eEGhyq

  3. A quote from Watts Humphey: “Self directed teams are a bargain”

    1. Bruce Benson says:


      Thanks for the Watts Humphrey quote.


  4. Bruce Benson says:


    Thanks for the info on TSP being self-directed.


  5. John Bundy says:

    I went to a one day SEI seminar on the SEI TSP process and “self-directed” teams are a part of the core TSP process:

  6. Bob
    some research shows they perform better for simple task than complex ones yet what write seems intuitively right to me. You may be interested in the most valuable kind of team player – the T-shaped ones (awkward title methinks eh?), as described by Morten Hanson in his book Collaboration
    Sounds like several smart commenters here might have suggestions of other sites and books on collaboration to add here

  7. @Bob:

    Actually some agile practices recommend that a cross-functional self-organized team is better than a team of experts when working on tasks that do not have single best answer. This is the case with innovative projects.

  8. Bob Cooper says:

    Self-managed work teams have some reasonable expectation for success, but only if the “team” is comprised of the same functionality…not disparate. It would be insane to think a project team, comprised of multiple disciples, could be self-managed because they have different contributions for a successful project… Release, Implementation, or Go Live.

  9. Yes commenter/Stan it seems that software developers led the way in forming self-organized project teams. This post has so many helpful points – especially since i think one of the most popular ways to collaborate will be around SOPTs and the rest of us must catch up with the best ways to use this approach to seize an opportunity or solve a problem.
    For starters, individuals will often not be in the same organization, one person will initiate the SOPT, speaking to the sweet spot of mutual benefit for each member to participate, have a top and actionable goal and be both specific and open to changes suggested by the team. That’s why I’m excited to be co-launching a DovetailCollaboration portal where members can share and vote on best tips for collaboration – and I’d like to share tips I’ve found on this helpful community

  10. In software development a good, self-organized team is key to success. I believe that the goal of the manager is to build such a team and assist them removing obstacles so that they can achieve their best. Old management methods of controlling and directing menial work do not work in creative and innovative environments and are counter productive. It’s a pity that many managers still don’t realize that different type of work calls for different management approach, often cardinally different…

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