Why Not Let People Form Their Own Teams?

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.”Michael Jordan

Hiring the right talent is not enough to build a high-performing team. Team dynamics affect overall performance;  they are like undercurrents that can carry a boat in a different direction than the one expected.

Team dynamics are affected by the nature of the work, but most importantly, by human factors such as personalities, interpersonal relationships and the culture. How people play together is a consequence of three critical elements: chemistry, a shared ambition, and connectedness.

If human factors play a critical role, why not let people design their own teams? That’s the idea behind self-selected teams: no one knows better what’s best for the team than the members themselves. In self-selected teams, rather than having senior managers structure and define who should play in which team, members are invited to choose. For many managers, this sounds counterintuitive. Decades of rigid management theories have made leaders believe they know best. I get it.

Let me share the whatwhy and how.

First, some words of caution:

  • I’m not trying to sell you self-selected teams as a silver bullet; I believe it’s an effective approach that’s worth a try.
  • Self-selected teams are not perfect but, with practice and adjustments, can increase engagement, speed, and productivity.

Understanding self-selected teams

The club you belong to defines your performance. Google discovered that, by reassigning low performers to other teams, their performance improved dramatically. Not every player succeeds on every team. Self-selection is a process by which people are empowered to organize into small and cross-functional teams. It’s a fast and efficient way to form high-performing teams  —  people give their best when they are part of a group they like.

To clarify, I’m not talking about giving away the keys of the kingdom. Self-managed teams are a different animal. Though a great option too, self- management provides the autonomy to determine, plan and make decisions under reduced or no supervision.

That’s not necessarily the case with self-selected teams —people are invited to choose in which team they want to work. They select the type of work they want to do and with whom they want to do it.

More motivated, productive

Self-selected teams are:

  • More motivated
  • More experimental
  • More productive
  • More engaged and stable

According to research by ThinkWise63% of the leaders surveyed believe that best-performing teams are those where people self-select to join. The paradox is that, among those interviewed, only 11% of executives currently allow people to self-select teams.

Why they work

Usually, management structures teams based on assumptions on who will get along with whom, required skills, personalities, and expertise. The larger the organization, the more difficult to understand in-depth team dynamics.

Allowing people to build their own teams is not merely an act of empowerment. It’s realizing that people know better what drives their passions and work — both individually and collectively. But it’s also a sign of trust. Regardless if management made a perfect selection or not, when employees have a voice their ownership increases.

There are three key contributors to the success of self-selected teams.

  • Autonomy: With freedom comes responsibility. In my experience both as a former CEO and as a consultant, people always rise to the occasion. It might take time, but they do. Self-selection allows people to decide what they want to do, when, how and with whom.
  • Purpose — People don’t just want to do something; they want fulfillment. What makes people proud of their work is not the tasks, but the outcome and impact. They want to contribute to a better cause. The purpose is the “why” a team wants to do great work. It’s the lighthouse that guides a shared ambition, especially during the storm.
  • Play — Playing doesn’t imply that people go to work to have fun. It means that they want to enjoy what they do. Work shouldn’t drain their energy, but actually, fuel their passion. The energy, chemistry, and connectedness makes work enjoyable, not a burden. Trust encourages people to take risks and experiment more often.

Not a new idea

Self-selection is not something new or a fad. During World War II, the RAF’s Lancaster bomber crews had to be formed after intense, yet short, training. Having people self-select into teams accelerated team formation. They became one of the most effectively put together teams in the history of war.

At this point, you might have some questions. Like, what happens if everyone wants to work on the same projects? Alternatively, what if some team members are not selected by anyone?

As I mentioned earlier, self-selected teams are not perfect. Their implementation will require adjustments by management and team members alike.

Dealing with tensions

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”
― Albert Einstein

Having fears and doubts about implementing a new system is normal. However, that shouldn’t prevent you from trying. Start by challenging your thinking with some powerful questions.

What’s the worst thing that can happen?

For me, this is the litmus test for any change initiative. Most of the times, we anticipate future tensions — we fear things won’t work. We worry about things that are unknown; the only way to face the real tensions is to put things in practice.

Write all your concerns; address them with your team. Which are real issues and what are future tensions? As it happens with every new thing, everyone needs to be willing to give it a try. Of course, people will have doubts. Address the issues and fears rather than presenting self-selection as a perfect solution — a vulnerable and human approach creates less resistance.

How can we avoid complacency?

This is one of the most significant challenges about implementing self-selected teams. Most people might default to choosing projects and people that make them comfortable. However, teams thrive when they cross the boundaries of the comfort zone.

Self-selection is a not a loose process — it requires clear rules of how the new game will be played. More on this later. Some teams tend to be more complacent than others when experimenting with self-selection for the first time. At least in my experience, when this approach is presented as a way to do better work, not just to make people happy, everyone rises to the occasion.

What if this approach actually works?

I like helping organizations try various methods and practices and see what resonates. Not every process will be effective for every company. Also, some approaches work better than others among the team. There’s no need to push for one over the other. Having an experimental mindset is critical.

Treat self-selected teams as a Minimum Viable Change (MVC). Implement it; see what happens; learn from the feedback, adjust, and scale the approach. If it ends up working for you, there’s nothing that you should worry about.

How do we avoid group thinking?

A successful team feeds from diversity of thinking, as I wrote here. The rules of the self-selection game should promote teams with diverse members and skills. Designing a team doesn’t necessarily mean picking all the best talent. The nature of the project will determine the best combination of people based on their skills, preferences, and personalities. Avoiding group thinking should be above all.

Self-selection is a friendlier approach to building, but it doesn’t mean that people should become friends. Playing together requires the space and psychological safety to address tensions, to arrive at safe-to-try decisions not to agree on everything.

Are senior managers out of the equation?

Once again, I’m not talking about self-organized teams here. Management plays a role in defining the ground rules, being obsessive about transparent and ongoing communication, and having people’s back during the initial phase.

When it comes to the selection process, some managers opt to move entirely away from the process. Others want to oversee the final results to avoid biases or complacency.

My advice to managers is to step back. Your behavior as a leader will send the right message (or not). Give people the space to learn. Don’t expect the initial experiments to be perfect. Provide room for the team to make the necessary adjustments.

When rules are changed, humans tend to swing from one side of the pendulum to the other. Finding balance requires time and reflection.

The self-selection process

Before you jump in, I suggest reading Creating Great Teams: How Self-Selection Lets People Excel by the founder of Nomad8, a boutique agile consultancy based in New Zealand that is a proponent of the self-selection model. Also, feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions.

The following is not a step-by-step guide, but an outline to get you started.

Preparation is key

Socialize self-selected teams — Seed the concept; don’t just launch it in a meeting with a PowerPoint. Find early advocates. Train them to help you coach the initial steps. Share best practices and case studies. Familiarizing your people with the idea will raise their comfort level.

Write your own rules — Though real customization happens along the road, it’s always beneficial to define what self-selected teams mean to your organization and how people will play the game. The nature of your business and culture should be connected with any new process or operating approach.

Build a clear timeline — Information is the best antidote for anxiety. When people know what will happen, and when, they start focusing on what needs to happen rather than getting stuck in doubts and skepticism. Those will be present along the process though, but shouldn’t prevent your team from doing their homework.

Communicate

Be clear and honest. Why have you decided to experiment with self-selected teams? What are you trying to achieve?

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Prepare your people — Provide a clear process with FAQs. Create spaces between the initial announcement and the actual kick-off for people to share concerns and questions.

Define priorities and selection criteria — A common challenge with self-selected teams is that people don’t know what they need to base their selection on. This defaults people to using likability as the main criteria. That people get along well is a means to an end — doing great work. I suggest defining priorities in the following order:

  1. What’s best for the project?
  2. What’s best for the team?
  3. What’s best for me as an individual?

Launch the process

How — Organize an event where everyone gets together, launch the process, let people select the team they want to be part of.

What if?

Nomad8 raises the following scenarios that are common worries:

  • No one wants to work in a particular area?
  • Does everyone want to join the same team?
  • No one wants to work with a particular person?
  • Do people get into fights?
  • Do teams get the wrong mix of people?(seniority, skills, personalities, etc.)

Their advice: “Don’t worry.” In their experience, these things rarely occur.

Can this work for you?

Self-selection makes everyone nervous at first. You have to trust your team. As I tell my clients, treat employees like grown-ups, and they’ll behave like one. Treat them like kids, and you will end running a kindergarten.

If you are having doubts, experiment with a few teams. Try it for one or two projects. Trying before you buy is much better than passing on the opportunity of increasing your teams’ productivity and excitement.

Is it for my type of company? Though software development (especially those using Agile methods) are the poster child for self-selected team, don’t think it’s only for tech companies. Every company that is organized around projects that have a clear beginning and end dates can benefit from it.

I’ve implemented it at advertising and design firms and have helped other professional services and even non-profits to adopt it successfully.

Once again, this is not a perfect method but one worth trying.

Is your company ready? You’ll never know until you try it.

Gustavo Razzetti

Gustavo Razzetti helps unstuck teams to ignite innovation and accelerate change. He is the CEO of  Liberationist, Change Leadership School and author of Stretch for Change.

In his capacity advising CEOs of everything from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies, Razzetti has been able to lead and transform organizations for over 20 years.

He has consulted companies in almost every business category including Verizon, P&G, 20th Century Fox, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Allstate and the Mexico Tourism Board, among others. Gustavo was previously EVP at Leo Burnett Chicago. Prior to that, he worked as CEO of Euro RSCG in New York, Argentina, and Puerto Rico. 

He has authored hundreds of articles on innovation, change leadership and self-improvement. He also participated in the — by invitation only — Innovation Leadership Program at Stanford University. 

Now living in Chicago, Razzetti is married with two sons.

For speaking arrangements, please contact: gustavo@liberationist.org