Lessons we’re learning through preparing ourselves for self-management.

Written by Chris Hardy - August 9, 2021

Here at Wholegrain, we are working towards becoming a more self-managed team. In engaging in this process, we’ve become aware that we have already had a fairly high degree of self-management for several years. So, we’ve been working on more fully embracing this way of working, while maximising the benefits to us as a team, and to our customers. The process we’ve been running recently has been designed to remove any ambiguity or blockers to a more fluid team dynamic and our next chapter as a self-managed organisation.

As Team Coach and Cultural Architect, I have been setting up and holding space for group explorations. This article explores this journey and shares some of our key learnings, including:

  • Why self-management will be good for our team and good for your teams too
  • What processes and experiments we’ve been running to prepare us for this next chapter
  • How curiosity and courage have helped to prepare us for self-management.

Why we feel self-management will be good for us, and good for you too

Self-management is not a new concept. Frederic Laloux’s seminal book ‘Reinventing Organisations’ (now firmly on the Wholegrain reading list) was originally published in 2014. While the idea has been around for some time, it’s not always ‘right’ for everybody. 

At Wholegrain, we feel that the time is right for our transformation to self-management for a variety of reasons, such as: 

  • Increasing complexity in the world of work and in the way that organisations function means that traditional forms of leadership are no longer sufficient, nor functional, in responding to today’s challenges
  • Engagement and motivation increase (and staff turnover decreases) as team members feel a greater sense of responsibility, ownership, and leadership in a more self-managed system
  • People feel more supported, as they are able to choose exciting developmental opportunities that build their leadership capacity and grow them into more rounded individuals
  • Fostering the conditions for emergent leadership to take place enables problem solving and creativity from all parts of the system that traditional leadership structures can’t offer.

The processes and experiments we’ve been running to prepare us for this next chapter

In order to prepare us for this shift into self-management, I have  been running an adapted version of a process called ‘Immunity to Change’ (ITC). Originally devised by Robert Kegan, this process is based on adult developmental theory and is a way of enabling groups and individuals to become aware of beliefs and assumptions that might hold them back from making changes.

The ITC process has been spread out over two months with our team being split into groups of four. As Team Coach I facilitate each session, ensuring things stay on track and helping everyone to progress at their own speed. 

We have all worked through our own ITC maps, supporting each other with our additional perspectives from each member of our group. A template ITC map looks like this. I created this design based on information in Keegan’s book, ‘An Everyone Culture’.

Taking our time to fill out this sheet helps us dig deeper and deeper into our psychology and into the underlying beliefs and ‘big assumptions’ that guide our behaviour and influence our actions. These ‘big assumptions’ are often among the things that keep us immune to making the changes that we’d like to.

Once these assumptions have been identified, we then take the brave step of running small experiments that test out our assumptions so show us that they’re not, in fact, as true as we might have once thought they were. The sheet we’ve been using for this step is below. 

Running experiments requires both courage and curiosity. This can be uncomfortable but it is often in  this discomfort that the real change happens.

How curiosity and courage have helped prepare us for self-management

“Individual development requires at least three factors to be present in the organisational mix: reflection, experimentation and time.” 

Jennifer Garvey Berger ‘Changing on the Job’

In facilitating this process, I have been mindful of three crucial elements in creating systemic change:

Experimentation – encouraging playfulness, a beginner’s mind, and a childlike attitude of curiosity and wonder. All team members are supported to do something different, to be experimental. Experiments are carefully crafted to capture data that would disprove or disconfirm (yup, that’s a word!) a ‘big assumption’. Individuals are supported to craft their own experiments which often begin with a different kind of conversation, or a request being made, or a boundary being put in place.

Reflection – the four way group calls, buddy coaching, whole team ‘system seeing’ conversations and 1-1s coaching sessions with me  provide the team with ample opportunity for reflection. Quality reflection helps us see the larger context, make sense in new ways, and see ourselves from multiple perspectives. Quality reflection enables more agency and choice and keeps important topics for discussion ‘on the table’ so that we can continually untangle them and make sense of any ambiguity.

Time – the current ITC process has been spread out over 6 sessions delivered in a 2 month period. This intense period of work has been contextualised in the larger narrative of cultural change that’s underway with timelines of 1, 2 or 5 years often referenced. Acknowledging larger expanses of time, while supporting the immediate work, enables team members to notice and stick to changes happening over time.

Uptake and engagement in these experiments has not been unanimous within Wholegrain. We face ongoing challenges in creating enough time to run these experiments, and in creating experiments that are inside the work that people have to do anyway. As Jennifer Garvey Berger says in ‘Changing on the Job’:

“We have more time and space for development, if development is inside the work we have to do anyway.”

That said, most of the team has brought a good dose of curiosity and courage to this crucial stage in the process. Curiosity helps us engage in an experiment in a truly experimental way – we have to let down our guard, but down what we think we know, and be ready for our underlying assumptions to be proven wrong (or at least not as 100% true as we might take them to be).

Our Account Manager Gary James shares his following perspective on this recent process:

My own big assumption was that I always needed to come up with an answer and that others were looking to me for it! 

Testing this assumption took an experiment consisting of two perspectives; objective and subjective. Outwardly I needed to find balance in still contributing to conversations without striving to identify absolute and definitive solutions. Inwardly I needed to calm and grow, learning to become more comfortable with ambiguity and operate from a place of empathy born of the heart and not the head. Supported by my teammates and with their buy-in to my experiments, shared observations of me served as a mirror, in which my experiment could be cogently reviewed.  

The results were surprisingly liberating. Although I have a long way to go in mastering this new found balance and equanimity, the first step has been to see ‘what is’ and become more aware of my own condition. Only further improving in this way can I envision myself feeling empowered working within the structure of a self-managed team.

One of our Developers, Tommy, shares his following words on the experiments he’s been running:

My current experiment is to (gently) push back on new requests and tasks, asking how urgent they are compared to my current workload. It can be easy to try to take on everything, making the assumption that it’s all urgent and the only way to be a good & helpful colleague is to try to catch everything.

It turns out that not everything is super urgent and, when it is, something else can be moved to make space or someone else can help tackle it – I don’t have to try to catch everything.

This change in perspective means I can be more proactive about my own schedule and workload, taking more ownership of it. Not only that, but I can actually be a better colleague by helping rearrange priorities by giving all the information about what’s possible and what’s not


Although we have been on the journey of self-management for some time now, we recognise both our progress while also acknowledging the steps ahead of us. There is no race here, no magical destination where we’ll be a totally self-managed system. Instead this feels more like an ongoing process of creation borne of the small experiments and brave steps that the whole team are taking.

What might be the benefits for your own organisation if you were to become more self-managed? 

We’ve experienced some great new initiatives, problem solving capacity and leadership emerging from across the team. Being given the freedom to experiment, the space to reflect, and the time for both of these is enabling a new culture to emerge, one that we’re really proud of.
If you’d like to find out more about our journey to self-management, or would like copies of the pdf.s we used for this process, please feel free to contact me directly. I’d love to share more!