Self-management is common in nature but rarely applied to the way we work. The weather, traffic, ants and even brain cells are all examples of self-managed systems. They exhibit adaptive and emergent behaviour without requiring a leader or central control.

Let’s be clear, self-managing systems when applied to organisations are not teams without leadership. They require clear guidelines, competent judgement and for people to take responsibility.

Traffic lights and roundabouts

The comparison between traffic lights and roundabouts, made by Aaron Dignan in his book Brave New Work, is a great metaphor to help us bring this to life.

Both traffic lights and roundabouts are designed to provide a solution to a simple challenge – how to prevent cars from hitting one another, while maintaining the maximum flow of traffic?

So, what are the differences between the two systems and how do they relate to self-management?

Traffic lights require us to comply, to go and stop when instructed. They require little thought from the driver and operate under the assumption that people need to be told what to do and when to do it. The traffic light system is managed by rules and technology, in the form of lights, switches, cables and control centres, that are programmed to optimise the flow of traffic. They are supported by large infrastructures that include staff monitoring situations on an ongoing basis. All well and good perhaps, until the power goes out, or someone breaks the rules, then many of us have experienced the chaos that ensues!

Roundabouts on the other hand require us to think. The driver is given the decision to stop or go in a carefully designed environment. Cars enter and exit a shared circle that connect all directions of travel. Drivers are governed by the simple rules of giving way to vehicles already in the circle and drivers are required to go with the flow of traffic. The system is simple and leaves room for judgement given the many scenarios that are likely to unfold moment by moment. Drivers are trusted and left to their own devices to think for themselves.

So, which produces the best results?

Surprisingly perhaps, roundabouts produce fewer accidents, less delays, improve traffic flow and have lower overall operating costs. The analogy provides a great example of the advantages of self-managing systems.

In organisations these advantages translate into fewer mistakes, higher productivity, reduction in head count, lower costs and a happier workforce.

Like a roundabout system, self-managing organisations carefully design an environment where people are free to choose what to do and when to do it. People have autonomy and are required to be present, competent, and responsible.

Learning to let go

Clarity and competence are the key enablers for leaders to offer this level of autonomy. However, once in place, leaders must learn to give control and let go of the reins. This requires a real shift in mindset.

It then becomes the role of the leader to continually re-design the road to support the challenges that come with self-management – to sense and respond to what’s emerging. It’s also their responsibility to support each driver gain the awareness needed to underpin the organisation’s success.

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