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Self-Selected Teams: How to Make Your People More Productive and Happier

A team that plays together stays together. “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” — Michael Jordan Hiring the right talent is not enough to build a high-performing team. Team dynamics affect overall performance — like undercurrents, they carry a…

By Gustavo Razzetti

April 13, 2018

A team that plays together stays together.

Hiring the right talent is not enough to build a high-performing team. Team dynamics affect overall performance — like undercurrents, they carry a boat in unexpected directions.

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” — Michael Jordan

Team dynamics are affected by the nature of the work but, most importantly, human factors such as personalities, interpersonal relationships, and the culture. How people play together is a consequence of three critical elements: chemistry, a shared ambition, and connectedness.

If the human factor plays a critical, why not let people design their teams?

That’s the idea behind self-selected teams: no one knows what’s best for the team than the members themselves.

Rather than senior managers structure and define who should play in which team members are invited to choose. For many executives, this sounds counterintuitive. Decades of rigid management theories have made leaders believed they know better. I get it.

Let me share the what, why, and how.

But, before, some words of caution:

  • I’m not trying to sell you Self-selected Teams as a silver bullet; I believe that it’s a practical approach that’s worth a try.
  • Self-selected teams are not perfect but, with practice and adjustments, can increase engagement, speed, and productivity.

Understanding Self-Selected Teams

“I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.” — Groucho Marx

The club you belong to defines your performance. Google discovered that, by reallocating low performers to other teams, their performance improved dramatically. Not every player succeeds on every team.

Self-selection is facilitated via a process letting people organize into small and cross-functional teams. It’s a fast and efficient way to form high-performing teams — people give their best when they are part of a group they like.

To clarify, I’m not talking about giving away the keys of the kingdom. Self-managed teams are a different animal. Though a great option too, self- management provides the autonomy to determine, plan, and authority to make decisions under reduced or no supervision.

That’s not necessarily the case with self-selected teams —people are invited to choose in which team they want to work. They select the type of work they want to do and with whom they want to do it.

Connectedness makes or breaks a team.

Self-selected teams are:

  • More motivated
  • More experimental
  • More productive
  • More engaged and stable

According to research by ThinkWise, 63% of leaders believe that best-performing teams are those where people self-select to join. The paradox is that, among those interviewed, only 11% of executives currently allows people to self-select the groups they want to join.

The Case for Self-Selected Teams

A team that plays together stays together.

Usually, management structures teams based on assumptions on who will get along with whom, required skills, personalities, and expertise. The larger the organization, the more challenging to understand in-depth team dynamics.

Allowing people to build their own teams is not merely an act of empowerment. People know better what drives their passions and work — both individually and collectively. But it’s also a sign of trust. Regardless if management made a perfect selection or not, when employees have a voice, their ownership increases.

Self-selection encourages people to experiment more, not just play the usual roles.

People have many skills that are underutilized at work . Self-selection gets people out of a box. They can use all their abilities, not just the ones that fit their job description.

Three key reasons contribute to the success of Self-selected Teams.

1. Autonomy

Having ownership of their work increases team members’ engagement and accountability. With freedom comes responsibility. In my experience, both as a former CEO and as a consultant, people always rise to the occasion. It might take time, but they do.

Autonomy allows people to define what they want to do, when, how, and with whom.

2. Purpose

People don’t just want to do something; they want fulfillment. What makes people proud of their work is not the tasks, but the outcome and impact. They want to contribute to a better cause.

The purpose is the ‘why’ a team wants to do great work. It’s the lighthouse that guides a shared ambition, especially during the storm.

3. Play

Playing doesn’t imply that people go to work to have fun. It means that they want to enjoy what they do. Work shouldn’t drain their energy, but actually, fuel their passion.

The energy, chemistry, and connectedness makes work enjoyable, not a burden. Trust encourages people to take risks and experiment more often.

Self-selection is not something new or a fad. During World War II, the RAF’s Lancaster bomber crews had to be formed after intense, yet short, training. Having people self-select into teams accelerated team formation. They became one of the most effectively put together teams in the history of war.

At this point, you might have some questions. Like, what happens if everyone wants to work on the same projects? Alternatively, what if no one selects some team members?

As I mentioned earlier, Self-selected Teams are not perfect. Its implementation will require adjustments from management and team members alike.

Self-Selected Teams: Addressing Tensions

"The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” – Albert Einstein

Having fears and doubts about implementing a new system is healthy. However, that shouldn’t prevent you from trying. Start by challenging your thinking with some compelling questions.

What’s the worst thing that can happen?

For me, this is the litmus test for any change initiative. Most of the time, we anticipate future tensions — we fear things won’t work. We worry about unknown things; the only way to face real tensions is to put things in practice.

Write all your concerns, address them with your team. Which are real issues, and what are future tensions? As it happens with every new thing, everyone needs to be willing to give a try. Of course, people will have doubts. Address the issues and fears rather than presenting self-selection as a perfect solution — a vulnerable and human approach creates less resistance.

How can we avoid complacency?

This is one of the most significant challenges of implementing Self-selected Teams. Most people might default to choosing projects and people that make them comfortable. However, teams thrive when they cross the boundaries of the comfort zone.

Self-selection is not a loose process — it requires clear rules of how the new game will be played. More on this later. Some teams tend to be more complacent than others when experimenting with self-selection for the first time. At least in my experience, when this approach is presented as a way to do better work, not just to make people happy, everyone rises to the occasion sooner than later.

What if this approach actually works?

I like helping organizations try various methods and practices and see what resonates. Not every process will be valid for every company. Also, some approaches resonate better than others among the team. There’s no need to push for one over the other. Having an experimental mindset is critical.

Treat Self-selected Teams as a Minimum Viable Change (MVC). Implement it, see what happens, learn from the feedback, adjust, and scale the approach. If it ends working for you, there’s nothing that you should worry about.

How do we avoid group thinking?

A successful team feeds from diversity of thinking, as I wrote here. The rules of the self-selection game should promote teams with diverse members and skills. Designing a team doesn’t necessarily mean picking all the best talent. The nature of the project will determine the best combination of people based on their skills, preferences, and personalities. Avoiding group thinking should be above all.

Self-selection is a friendlier approach to building, but it doesn’t mean that people should become friends. Playing together requires the space and Psychological Safety to address tensions, to arrive at safe-to-try decisions not to agree on everything.

Do senior managers get out of the equation?

Once again, I’m not talking about Self-Governed Teams here. Management plays a role in defining the ground rules, being obsessive about transparent and ongoing communication, and having people’s back during the initial phase.

When it comes to the selection process, some managers opt to move entirely away from the equations. Others want to oversee the final results to avoid biases or people being complacent.

My advice is: step back. Your behavior as a leader will send the right message (or not). Give people the space to learn. Don’t expect the initial experiments to be perfect. Provide room for the team to make the necessary adjustments.

When rules are changed, humans tend to swing from one side of the pendulum to the other. Finding balance requires time and reflection.

The Self-selection Process

The following is not a step-by-step guide, but an outline to get you started.

Image by Nomad8, New Zealand Agile Consultancy

1. Clarify your approach

Be clear and honest. Why have you decided to experiment with Self-selected Teams? What are you trying to achieve?

Give your team the tools they need. Provide a transparent process with FAQ. Create spaces between the initial announcement and the actual kick-off for people to share concerns and questions.

Define priorities and selection criteria. A common challenge with Self-selected Teams is that people don’t know what they need to base their selection on. This defaults people from using likability as the main criteria. That people get along well is a means to an end — doing great work. I suggest defining priorities in the following order:

What’s best for the project?

What’s best for the team?

What’s best for me as an individual?

2. Preparation is key

Understand self-selection: I recommend that you read this book by the founder of Nomad8. Also, feel free to reach out if you have any questions.

Socialize Self-Selected Teams: Seed the concept; don’t just launch it in a meeting with a Powerpoint. Find early advocates. Train them to help you coach the initial steps. Share best practices and case studies. Familiarizing the team will lower their defense mechanisms.

Write your own rules: Though real customization happens along the road, it’s always beneficial to define what Self-selected Teams mean to your organization and how people will play the game. The nature of your business and culture should be connected with any new process or operating approach.

Build a clear timeline: Information is the best antidote for anxiety. When people know what will happen, and when, they start focusing on what needs to happen rather than getting stuck in doubts and skepticism. Those will be present along the process though, but shouldn’t prevent your team from doing their homework.

3. Launch the Process

How: Organize an event where everyone gets together, launch the process, let people select the team they want to be part of.

What if?

The following scenarios are included in Nomad8 one-pager. Their advice: “don’t worry.” In their experience, these things rarely occur.

No one wants to work in a particular area?

Does everyone want to join the same team?

No one wants to work with a particular person?

Do people get into fights?

Do teams get the wrong mix of people? (seniority, skills, personalities, etc.)

Are Self-Selected Teams Right for You?

Self-selection makes everyone nervous at first.

You have to trust your team. As I tell my clients, treat employees like grown-ups, and they’ll behave like one. Treat them like kids, and you will end running a kindergarten.

Self-selected Teams requires embracing a Culture of Abundance, not one of scarcity. Most companies operate under the notion that resources and opportunities are limited. This is the opposite; the spirit is to let people create their opportunities.

Offer possibilities, and people will choose wisely. Offer limitations, and people would fight for whatever you offer even if they don’t like it.

If you are having doubts, experiment with a few teams. Try for one or two projects. It’s not the same when everyone plays with the same rules; the collective energy is much higher. However, ‘trying it before you buy’ is much better than passing on the opportunity of increasing your team’s productivity and excitement.

Is it for my type of company? Though software development (especially those using Agile methods) are the poster child for Self-selected Teams, this is not limited to them. Every company that is organized around projects that have a clear beginning and end dates can benefit from it.

I’ve implemented it at advertising and design firms and have helped other professional services and even non-profits to adopt it successfully.

Once again, this is not a perfect method but one worth trying.

Is your company ready? You’ll never know until you try it.

Read about the benefits of self-organization and how to get your team started.
What do you think?



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