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Building Successful Self-Managed Teams

In software development, a lot of terms are thrown around for how teams should be managed. Whether we say self-managed teams, self-directed teams, or self-organized teams, what does this mean?

This can mean many things depending on the organization. First, let’s cover a basic definition from the interwebs:

From, a self-managed team is:

“A self-organized, semi autonomous small group of employees whose members determine, plan, and manage their day-to-day activities and duties under reduced or no supervision. Also called self directed team or self-managed natural work team.”

Sounds fun, easy, and way better than having a micromanager, right?

Indeed. But, building a self-managed team is more complicated than that.

Self-managed Teams Need Self-driven People

Creating a self-managed team requires evaluating if the team members themselves can be self-managed and self-driven. In theory, everyone loves how it sounds: not a lot of hierarchy, not micromanaged and allowed to get stuff done, and autonomous. In reality, self-managed means each team member is responsible for knowing what to work on and why. In software development teams, hopefully the product manager or project manager is helping guide you. Still, the PM will not be sitting over your shoulder. You own your schedule and your day.

It can be overwhelming for some team members when they are first introduced to a self-managed team. Having management hands off is intimidating. How will my boss know I’m doing well? Do my team members understand what I am working on? How do I show my value to the company? These are all valid concerns. Self-managed teams work with and for each other. Each member’s success is everyone’s success. It doesn’t mean you won’t have to remove certain team members from the team.

Trust Drives Transparency, Honesty, and Humility

For a self-managed team to flourish, the team must trust each other. Trust is the starting point to allow for transparency, honesty, and humility to exist. Without these, it is hard to get to the root cause of issues and help team members grow. Honesty and transparency don’t equate to being rude. They equate to having hard conversations to help the team be better. Sometimes, these opportunities for growth are specific to the project and the conversations happen naturally. Other times, the issue may have nothing to do with the project at hand. For most people, this means saying things you’re uncomfortable saying. Being more direct, having more candor, and being willing to take as well as dish it out.

For instance, if a team member is having a personality issue with a fellow team member, a self-managed team needs to be able to handle the situation. It is important that the team trusts each other enough so that a designer can go to a developer and express his or her frustrations in a constructive way, so that a mutual solution can be found.

Humility is of dire importance as well. Being able to admit failure, being mistaken, or say “I don’t know, can anyone offer guidance?” sounds easy, but it’s not. When the team trusts each other and isn’t overworked, everyone should want to offer support for success. Being able to admit these things and quickly looking for help is key. Reach out to other team members directly, check with others to see if you may be missing something, or consult people outside the team if needed.

Self-Managed Teams Still Require Leadership

Not having a manager is not the same as not having a leader. Sometimes, the same person can fill both roles, but being a manager doesn’t mean you are a leader. Leaders are found at all levels of the organization. Having self-managed teams doesn’t replace the need for the team to have proper leadership inside and outside the team. A team needs a support group to offer guidance, mentoring, and ideas. Usually, a self-managed team will organically find a leader within it. This is great, but having other leaders available outside the team is also important.

Employee Driven Decisions are the Norm

For a self-managed team to be successful, the company or organization must support employee driven decisions. Upper management plays a role in most companies and should define the mission and potentially the product and project goals. If the company’s upper management team must approve all decisions, control day to day team operations, and monitor low level details of the team’s work, being self managed will be impossible. This isn’t only a risk with upper management. If a team has a strong individual, and the rest of the team doesn’t have the confidence to disagree with them, self-management will be more challenging. That doesn’t mean you can’t take principles from how self-managed teams are successful and try adding these elements to your teams. For instance, building trust, the ability to be honest and transparent, and allowing for humility will be advantageous for any team and team member.


Being on a self-managed team is rewarding for a lot of people. It takes a lot of responsibility, drive, patience, understanding, and honesty, but being empowered to define your work and success makes it worth it. If an organization isn’t setup properly, self-managed teams can be risky, challenging, and ultimately, unsuccessful. Even then, taking the principles that make self-managed teams successful and implementing them within any team or organization, or even personally, can help with growth and success.