How we started
“Self-Management is an organisational model wherein the traditional functions of a manager (planning, coordinating, controlling, staffing and directing) are pushed out to all participants in the organisation instead of just to a select few. Each member of the organisation is personally responsible for forging their own personal relationships, planning their own work, coordinating their actions with other members, acquiring requisite resources to accomplish their mission, and for taking corrective action with respect to other members when needed.”
Over one year ago, we decided to become a self-managed team. We had already been working towards this goal for some time, but we were never 100% confident that we could actually change our operating systems. It’s hard to let go of the safety blanket of having a CEO at the top ready to make the tough decisions. When things went well, everyone could manage, but when we were faced with difficult challenges and hard options, this figure within the company was the one to pick it up and direct us on the right path.
However, come the end of 2016, things changed for 90 Digital when our CEO left the company to pursue other opportunities, and we were faced with our moment to seek ours. We decided this was the time to experiment with the self-management practices we had learned about and start shaping our processes around different principles.
Our shareholders became our advisory board, and the 90 Digital team started handling the day to day operations of the business on a flat hierarchy.
We had several online meetings to discuss our approach, how we wanted to get started, set some ground rules for sharing tasks and projects, and begin defining each process one by one.
Our first steps
Opening up all systems
To have a functioning self-managed team, everything needs to be transparent: business results, communication, and internal rules, so everyone understands every part of the business and is equipped with all of the info and tools he or she needs to make decisions directly related to his or her role.
So we opened the books and we started having conversations to ensure everyone understood the information they could now access. A crucial part of being transparent is making sure that people know what they have access to and offering them the space to ask any questions they might have about the logic behind specific information and decisions.
Together, we started looking at how the business performed month to month, and we analysed what went well and what didn’t. We then laid out steps of what we had to do to improve things and grow the business.
Our Salary Formula
“Opening up the books means transparent salaries as well.”
We had to make sure salaries were fair and that everyone understood who received what and why. We worked on a list of principles that are important to each of us, and we had a team meeting to discuss what is most relevant to us and what we want to take into consideration. Based on the results from those initial discussions, we created the first draft of our salary formula. After collating feedback and input from the team, we arrived at a final draft that defined three fundamental elements: workload, experience, and time at 90 Digital.
When it comes to workload, everyone’s role is modular. Each member of the team is working on several client projects, offering a variety of different services, but also contributing to internal projects, like our internal marketing and sales processes. Some people work full-time, while others work part-time or project-based, but it’s always important to see the contribution each one of us brings to the business and understand how that correlates with their salary. During the year, someone’s workload may change based on the projects they are involved in, so they may go from part-time to full-time hours. However, it can also move the other way.
90 Digital is a digital marketing agency, so we offer a wide range of services, starting with SEO. Each member of the team has a specific area(s) of expertise, but we always encourage getting involved in different projects and expanding skill levels, along with the services one can cover.
Time at 90 Digital was an essential factor for everyone in the team to reward people who have been with 90 for a long time and appreciate their commitment to what the brand stands for.
We started using this salary formula at the beginning of 2017 and, even though it helped us get on the same page, it’s nowhere near close to being the final process. It will probably be work in progress for a long time and a constant adaptation of where we are and who we are as a team.
To provide a better overview of our budgets, in addition to the salary formula, everyone has access to all internal folders and documents, Slack channels and any internal information about the business. Each team member is responsible for deciding what is useful for their role and what is not.
Defining the decision-making process
When researching decision-making processes for self-managed teams, we decided to go with the advice process (thoroughly explained in Reinventing Organisations, by Frederic Laloux). In summary, everyone is free to make all decisions related to his or her role as long as he or she asks for advice from someone with relevant expertise or the people who will be impacted by that decision. This responsibility means that people need to step up and decide what needs to be done for a particular project or who should get involved, by themselves.
This approach doesn’t make things easier as people often don’t want to be the ones responsible for an important decision, especially if they are not used to being involved in the process. However, being the leader on a project means taking responsibility and learning how to handle everything, including making the decisions.
Setting our shared working principles
To co-create a framework, we had to agree on some common principles and rules that we would all respect. We had a good start on this before becoming a self-managed team so we collectively decided what the most important principles are that people should have in mind when working at 90 Digital.
The the most important ones that we agreed on are:
Trust | Transparency | Learning
We defined each one of them and highlighted how they translate to actual behaviours. Currently, we’re in the process of redefining our core principles and values to determine how we want to present ourselves and what kind of business we want to be, so watch this space.
We believe work is something which should be enjoyed and that everyone should have the freedom to choose how, when and where he or she works from. This freedom, of course, also brings some challenges in maintaining efficient communication, high accountability and productivity.
Turning this freedom into performance and productivity means careful attention must be paid to how a team is built: starting with recruitment and then creating the right environment for people to thrive. In order to be a good fit for a team that not only works remotely but is also self-managed, people need to show a high degree of autonomy and personal accountability. These qualities, combined with excellent skills and knowledge in digital marketing, make the winning combination.
We’re continually trying to find talented people to work with us, grow the business, and keep creating a healthy working culture.
We still have many things we’d like to improve, but we’ve come a very long way since the end of 2016. We love our clients, the work we do for them, and the relationships we’ve managed to build. Each client we have gets the attention needed, and we create the right team to work on every project to make sure we deliver exceptional results.
Since we started experimenting with self-management principles, the team is stronger than ever, and there’s a great feeling of progress from one month to the next. There is more use of initiative and sharing of ideas on how to make things better and push our limits. The most important aspect of transitioning to a self-managed team is that everyone understands the business, how it works, and what we’re trying to achieve. It’s a collective effort.