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Do Self Directed Teams Really Work?


The short answer is:  it depends! 

What’s the W5 on Self Directed Teams (SDT’s)?

What:  A SDT is a group of colleagues who pool their strengths and work collaboratively without a traditional “manager” to guide them. 

Who:  Typically SDT members come from all areas of an organization.  An SDT can be as small as 2 or as large as 15 or 20 but 6-10 seems to be an optimal number.   

Where:  Usually SDT’s are appointed within a workplace but the concept could be used in other team environments.

Why:  The employer needs and/or wants new perspectives and synergies on how to build a better mousetrap.  That could mean solving a customer service challenge, launching a new product or service…     

When:  An SDT is usually a permanent group which assumes a range of projects over a period of time rather than just one specific initiative.

How:  Within the context of the organization’s Vision, Mission and Values, the team members are given broad scope and autonomy to decide how they’ll work together.  This includes how “structured” the team will be (e.g. what “rules” are in place), what will be expected of each individual within the team, time frames, dispute resolution, key success factors, etc.  While the employer supports the SDT, the team is ultimately accountable for its success.

An interesting aside:  ”skunkworks” is a concept that evolved during WWII at the Lockheed Corporation when it needed engineers to one-up Germany’s Messerschmitt.  Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson came up with the skunkworks model, named after Al Capp’s popular at the time “L’il Abner” cartoon which featured a moonshine factory.  (“Skunk Works” is a registered trademark of Lockheed Martin Corporation) 

It’s subsequently been used by larger organizations (e.g. Big Blue, IBM) to foster creative thinking.  Today, there are virtually no workplaces that aren’t team based so SDT’s, skunkworks and “laboratories” are being revisited.

“The idea is not (as it used to be) that those in the skunkworks emerge at the end of the day with something that makes their competitors way “Wow”.  The idea is that they come out with something that makes their competitor’s customers say “Wow”! (“The Economist Guide to Management Ideas and Gurus” by Tim Hindle).

So…how could your organization use an SDT or skunkworks to its advantage?

For more how-to  information:  “Leading Self-Directed Work Teams:  a guide to developing new team leadership skills” by Kimball Fisher.