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The practice of self-managing, autonomous work teams is a gateway to the future of work. Team self-management rests on a well established knowledge base, allows for relatively risk-free moves that can be driven in a decentral fashion, and creates in-house, showcase examples of “new work” models.


While some contributors to the debate on the future of work often seem to be making hyperbolic promises, we believe that there are some recent and some more mature ideas about managing that definitely make a difference for the organizations of the future.

One well-established stream of management thinking and practice that is rapidly becoming more relevant concerns (semi-)autonomous teams. We believe that this body of knowledge is one core building block and a stepping stone for innovative forms of agile organizing. There are three reasons for this.

  1. First, there is a mature research and practitioner discourse regarding (self-managed) teams and teaming in general. You don’t have to rely on untested ideas and premature concepts to instill self-management in your teams. For example, there is extensive knowledge about collaborative leadership and on the importance of a strong purpose orientation for high-performing teams. In addition, on a fundamental level, teams represent the smallest form of organizing, by which we mean the division of work within a social group in pursuit of a shared goal.

  2. Second, and building on the first point, interventions on the team level are manageable and relatively risk-free. You can approach them in an experimental yet scalable way. One of the key transition issues for innovative forms of organizing is the question of speed: how fast should you move into a fundamentally new model? Starting with and then building on (semi-)autonomous teams gives you a phased approach to building broad practical experiences with decentralized self-management.

  3. Third, team-based grassroots initiatives are often forerunners, asking for or showcasing new ways of working. Chances are there are teams and team leads in your organization who are motivated to be “first movers” in championing and experimenting with a new model. We have seen several organizational transformations towards highly innovative models start in this way.

Of course, starting with greater autonomy for (some of) your teams does not by itself address all or most of the key issues inherent to radically different organizational models. For example, how do you design and practice the interface between an autonomous team and a hierarchically defined organizational structure above and around that team? But it gives you a practical basis from which to explore more extensive, and potentially more daring, models at greater scale across the organization.

Learn more about new forms of organizing, how to approach organizational self-management, and building high-performing teams.


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