Hardcover | 268 pp. | Cucina Media | 22/10/2019 | 1st Ed.
The Team That Managed Itself is yet again not a traditional management book. The most significant part of this book, written by Christina Wodtke, is written in the format of a Novel. Without giving too much of the story away (which is well written, and will keep you on the page chapter after chapter), the main protagonist is Allie, a Product Manager for a videogame company. She heads up a Studio, which is a little business unit with a lot of Autonomy, yet also with a lot of responsibility towards the executives of the company. The “product” that she manages is a game called Quiltworld, which turned to become a hit, and she’s proud of it. You immediately see as part of the story the challenges of Product Management. But the narration focuses early on the team, the career of Allie, the difficulties in managing and coaching the team. All the typical items we face in our daily jobs, come to reality for Allie. A disconnected boss, internal team misunderstanding, the relationships with the broader organisation, missing skills in the team, a career that was probably a bit too quick, as Allie is promoted to the GM role of her Studio. And here, the real challenges start.
I won’t get too much in detail on the rest of the plot, as I don’t want to spoil the reads. Probably the only thing that I want to underline is that Allie is fortunate as she founds out having an “amazing formal and informal network of advisors that stretches credulity“. A bit too good to be true, including the caring husband that is also an illuminated HR professional.
The story allows the author to frame the complexity of becoming a manager and having to lead a team of people. It goes through all thee specific difficulties but shows an ultimate tale of success. Unfortunately, we live often other stories that are not that successful.
The novel-like part is not the whole book. The second part provides a framework of reference for building what the author defines Autonomous Team, a team that can work according to self-management principles. Also, this section is very well written, although I found somehow missing the connection with the first part. Only a few times the lessons from Allie are contextualised. At the same time, you could just read the second section, and obtain the pure juice of the book in just a couple of hours of reading.
But let’s see what the big lessons that the author introduces in The Team That Managed Itself.
The Issue with People Management
he first important concept that she puts forward is the fact that People management is a completely different job from any front-line job and requires completely different skills. One of the misunderstood transitions in the way we manage hierarchies is also the most significant source of pain in organisations. The fact that you are good at your front-line job simply does not predict you will be successful at managing others. This book is primarily aimed at those people that are learning to become manager, and I must admit it does a great job in distilling the fundamental notions you need to have.
Forming the Right Team
As you assemble a team, one of the first aspect you need to consider is that you need to build it based on complementarity. You want a smart group of people all teaching each other their superpowers. Which is the basis for the first team type that Wodtke mentions: Learning Teams.
In a learning team, not only is the team performing as a unit, but they are also working together to become better every day. […]
A learning team shares a commitment to progress.Christina Wodtke, The Team That Managed Itself
To enable this, the critical component to establish is Psychological Safety. One of the main inspirations for this book has been The Fearless Organization by Amy Edmondson, and several concepts are reintroduced here. The rest happens through the traditional phases of the Tuckman Model that Wodtke reorganises in a continuous improvement loop.
She then joins this with the three critical elements of a functional team borrowed by The Wisdom of Teams by Douglas K. Smith and Jon Katzenbach: Goals, Roles and Norms. And she creates what she defines as The Cadence of a High Performing Team which constitutes the backbone of the book.
She then illustrates essentially each quadrant of the model and the activities prescribed. A lot of focus is given on Goals, mainly through OKRs. This is the topic of her other book Radical Focus, of which the most critical chunks are offered to the reader. I found the section on OKR Fundamental mainly well written in summarising in a few pages the critical aspects of the concept we have already met in a few other books (Measure what Matters and High Output Management).
There’s a reason they call it people management. Not because you’re bossing them around, but because you’re helping them be the kind of person the company needs and the kind of person they want to be.Christina Wodtke, The Team That Managed Itself
Roles and Hiring
One of the most exciting sections is dedicated to Hiring and Role Definition. The assumption is that, very often, roles are defined during the hiring process. Wodtke suggests a simple visual canvas to create a role, that is based on four boxes: Goals of the roles, Responsibilities, Skills and Knowledge (where knowledge is particularly focused on market knowledge), and Questions, which is essentially the part where you anticipate what you want to ask in the interview process—using a one-pager forces on focusing solely on what is truly relevant. Now you have a description that covers the most critical elements of the role but leaves space for surprising and interesting orthogonal skills to show up.
Another interesting paragraph talks about unspoken roles, i.e. those bunch of activities that every team has to do but are not embedded into a formal role. This can be the facilitator, the person that takes notes during meetings, the person that organises the office party… We need to picture what these activities are and consider them in the selection process as well, as we are looking for the right skills here. The author notes that too often these tasks, that she defines as office housework, are delegated to women. It’s an aspect that needs to be considered when the Team Norms are established and need to be treated accordingly.
Creating Team Norms
This is a piece that every manager often learns the hard way. Each team works by its norms, whether you want it or not. Ensuring that there is a formal step of defining norms for a new group (or when a new leader is appointed), is vital to make sure everybody is aware. Organising a specific session to define the norm charter, ensuring this is well established and visible for everybody, is time well spent (and the author gives some excellent suggestions on how to do it). It’s particularly interesting the fact that she focuses on the fact that when a team forms, we all come at the table with different norms. Which stresses the importance of ensuring the rule of the games are shared among the members of the team, and not merely “assumed”.
Creating the Autonomous Team
A Learning Team needs continuous feedback, and constant improvement mentality joined with a healthy level of Psychological Safety. But what are the enablers that really can make it an Autonomous Team?
The concept is drafted by Daniel Pink’s book Drive and looks at Autonomy as one of the motivation drivers.
Once you begin to evolve a team to this level, everyone wants to be a part of the success.[…]
The team coaches itself. The people manager eventually becomes a member of the team who happens to have some deep insight into the business and the rest of the company. It’s a good place for the team to be.Christina Wodtke, The Team That Managed Itself
The answer is again found in the Cadence table we have illustrated before, as we look at the more advanced features. OKRs are graded, not just set. Coaching and self-coaching become vital tools for the manager to enable one-to-one relationship and unlock personal growth by allowing a true Feedback Loop. The illustration below shows the loop as envisioned by the author, which integrates several different frameworks into a holistic view of the Feedback Loop.
Reflection is another critical feature for successful teams and is developed based on a few Agile ceremonies: post-mortems and retrospective. These should happen at the project level, but also in quarterly chunks, where not just objectives get evaluated, but also Norms get evaluated: this is, according to the author, the focus of team evaluations.
The last chapter focuses on Firing as an unwanted, but necessary component of People Management.
Listen, Listen, Listen is the critical advice that Christina Wodtke gives to any manager that genuinely wants to manage an Autonomous Team. The book The Team That Managed Itself provides a very well reasoned framework in the form of a cadence of activities to be run at the level of a team. It is a book that narrates the difficulty of becoming a manager, an often overlooked aspect of any career. And it grounds this on three foundational elements: A system of Goals (OKR), a system of Roles based on Autonomy and a network of Norms enabled by Psychological Safety. Feedback and continuous improvement keep the system alive.
I like the way the book is built: the narrative at the beginning allows you to see the daily struggle of a manager and many possible situations we have all lived in. The only additional caveat I have is the assumption that everybody can quickly adopt Agile Methodologies. I still seer too much suspect from some team leaders on these tools.
A great read highly suggested especially for managers at the beginning of their career—also a very stringent guideline for HRBPs in their quest to support the performance of teams. And a great building block for enabling organisations truly built on teams.