6 Tips to Create Autonomous and Self-Directed Teams

6 Tips to Create Autonomous and Self-Directed Teams

The workforce has changed dramatically in the past few years. Remote and hybrid environments are becoming not just a perk but often expected; robots are increasingly integrated into food and retail industries; the “Great Resignation” has employers on their heels to improve workplace cultures and benefits to meet employee expectations and reduce turnover.

This wave of change, championed by the evolving attitudes and habits of the modern-day professional, has yet to subside and will continue to morph over the coming years. In an effort to cater company culture to meet the needs of desirable employees, new management theories are being developed and adopted to empower team members and encourage increased job satisfaction.

One such emerging management style takes the form of autonomous and self-directed teams, which are defined as “a set of individuals in an organization who incorporate various talents and abilities to work toward a common goal or objective without the standard administrative oversight.”

The benefits of this structure can be immense. Teams can work more efficiently and finish projects more quickly due to decreased bureaucratic tasks. Staff are given more opportunities for growth as they can create new applications for their skills and increase learning. Employee morale is reportedly higher as this team style empowers members and can instill a greater feeling of motivation and purpose. The appeal has led companies like Dutton Engineering, Federal Express, 3M, and AT&T to adopt this structure. Here at Cross Impact Coaching, we’ve seen firsthand how powerful this management style can be in creating happy, dedicated employees who want to work for the greater good of the company.

To set your team up for success utilizing effective autonomous and self-directed team structures into your business, these tips can help:

  1. Establish an Entrepreneurial Company Culture – Autonomous, self-directed teams are best suited for individuals and groups that are intrinsically motivated and have clear ambitions for future achievements. This is because the success of such working structures is dependent on the internal motivation of the members comprising the teams, not external drivers like managers. To aid in effective adoption of these management models, it can be beneficial to inspire an entrepreneurial spirit throughout your organization, where everyone on the team feels highly empowered to present and enact new ideas as well as connected to the company’s overall mission.

  2. Experiment – Before making such a dramatic shift in workplace operations, it is critical to experiment and seek feedback when implementing autonomous self-directed teams. Further, this will allow you to identify teams and members who may be best positioned to champion this new structure within the organization.

  3. Set Clear Goals and Objectives – Successfully implementing self-directed teams requires all individuals to be working in conjunction towards a common vision or goal. Thus, it is important for leadership to establish desired results that are communicated in a clear and transparent way. Further, the team should be in agreement with the feasibility of this objective. Finally, especially when first transitioning into this new working model, it can be beneficial to set up milestones towards the common goal that serve as a roadmap.

  4. Instill a Sense of Psychological Safety Across Team Members – Achieving greatness often involves numerous mistakes along the way. Individuals and teams that focus too much on these gaffes can create an overly stressed environment for surrounding members, where colleagues are fearful of repercussions if an idea doesn’t pan out. While it is healthy for team members to care about performing their work well and to the best of their ability, an environment of perfectionism can squelch and overwhelm positive ambitions and motivations. Be intentional about creating a psychologically safe environment where it is safe to experiment, and ultimately, fail. This will make room for employees to feel confident enough to present any and all ideas, including the winners they may have been too nervous to voice.

  5. Empower Your Team with the Trust and Tools Required – An inherent reality of the autonomous team model is that it places a great deal of trust and confidence into the members of the group. The metaphorical training wheels are removed, and employees off to the races. It is essential that upper management is willing and able to place enough trust in these autonomous teams to fully empower them. Further, the executive team must provide these teams with the tools that need to do their jobs well – even if these tools seem pricey, have a healthy level of trust that they have evaluated alternatives. This empowerment pays off in the long run as trusted employees (who, remember, have already been vetted for talent and accomplishment in the hiring process) often have higher levels of job satisfaction.

  6. Seek Continuous Feedback – In order to create and facilitate a successful program, it’s essential to keep the conversation going to ensure its continuously working. To substantiate the program’s success, seek feedback and survey your teams 3, 6 and 12 months after implementing this new structure and way of working. This will help to continue to learn and adjust as needed for the future.

Please keep in mind that this working structure can ebb and flow. It becomes more of an art than a science of where and how the manager engages with their employee to ensure deadlines are being met. Recent trends seem to signal a potential for increasing adoption of this model across companies large and small. If your organizational culture seems to align with that need for a successful autonomous structure, the benefits mentioned earlier provide a strong business case for implementing this model.

Leadership is a key element to the success of creating autonomous, self-directed teams. Here at Cross Impact Coaching, we have supported many leaders through our 1:1 Leadership Coaching program in making the shift to this new way of working and supporting team members. Learn more about our program here.


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