Self-Directed Teams: Lessons Learned for Local Government

By Coates, Dennis; Miller, Martha | Public Management, December 1995 | Go to article overview

Self-Directed Teams: Lessons Learned for Local Government


Coates, Dennis, Miller, Martha, Public Management


Which Departments Are Best Suited To Teams

"Even though you have no experience in compensation or training management, you would be expected to learn these functions and to provide these services to four departments. Does that sound like something you would like to do?"

The candidate sat at the round table and pondered the question. Four other people at the table awaited her answer. If she got the job, these people would be her coworkers. Immediately after the interview, members of the group discussed their impressions and quickly decided not to hire her. This was a team consensus decision, made without the director, who was away on a business trip. The group was the department of human resources in the city of Hampton, Virginia, the first office of the city's government to become a self-directed team.

A self-directed team is a work group that operates without a supervisor. Typically, leadership and administrative functions are distributed among the team members, and the former leader adopts a nonsupervisory coaching or representative role and is absorbed into the team as a producing member. Team members manage themselves; they decide how to structure roles, improve work procedures, and accomplish their mission.

The concept of self-directed teams is a hot one in organizations right now. Roughly 20 percent of all companies in the United States are experimenting with some form of self-directed teams, with that figure projected to reach 50 percent by the year 2000.

Organizations are drawn to this innovation in management for compelling reasons. If work groups can learn to operate without supervisors, layers of management can be eliminated, an exciting prospect in an era of downsizing, flattening, and work process reengineering. More important, the increased involvement that comes with self-directed teams can make significant improvements in employee commitment, initiative, innovation, and productivity.

Ten years ago, Hampton's new city manager, Bob O'Neill, made it clear that creativity, flexibility, and empowerment were needed for the city to become more efficient and more responsive to its citizens. He eliminated several layers of management and encouraged employee involvement at all levels. In this new climate, Tharon Greene, director of the department of human resources, decided that her staff should configure itself as a self-directed team. While O'Neill supported Greene's initiative, he did not mandate self-directed teams for the entire organization.

Not much was known about "teams" in 1984, and what had been reported related mostly to manufacturing organizations in the private sector. Nevertheless, Greene felt that the concept was ideal for her group, and during the years that followed, the human resources department discovered how to become a self-directed team by living through the transition. For these and other achievements, Personnel magazine presented the department with its Optimas Award for General Excellence. While the department now is a model team and since has helped several other departments become teams, what team members learned along the way may be instructive to any local government considering self-directed teams.

The major lessons learned fall into three categories. First, some departments within local government may not be suited to self-directed teams. The nature of their work determines that self-direction may not succeed. Second, self-directed teams cannot be implemented as isolated programs; to create the right environment for such teams, nearly every aspect of an organization - from the top down - must change the way it does business. And finally, managers need to understand what must be invested to make teams work. While the transformation to self-directed work units well may prove to be the only way in which an organization can meet the requirements of the future, such an effort involves significant costs and challenges.

Which Departments Are Best Suited to Self-Directed Teams? …

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