Building Self-Management Muscles


On January 8, 2013, I left my work at W.L. Gore & Associates and commenced a journey. Having sold a home, moved to a new city, and finalized a divorce all in the 6 months prior, it was a huge change. I was filled with uncertainty and a little sadness. Yet somehow I also felt energized about my unknown future. I saw it as an opportunity to reboot my life.

Fast forward to now. I am engaged to a wonderful woman and we are completely aligned in the life we are creating together. I am also doing work that I absolutely love with an amazing group of colleagues. It was inspired by the seven years I spent in W.L. Gore's system of "organizational self-management." The principles and practices are very similar across all the vanguard companies and well documented in Frederic Laloux's groundbreaking book Reinventing Organizations.

Although I trained to be a process engineer and loved my work, what I noticed being at Gore was how passionate I had become about their unique leadership model with no formal hierarchy. The model delivers both innovation AND high performance across the organization. As an engineer, I could see how the simple and highly effective practices were leading the company to enduring success.

I'll admit at the beginning I was a skeptic. Working at Johnson & Johnson while in high school I always thought that their management system was the pinnacle of how a company should be run. I admired the elegantly designed organizational charts with the beautiful system of levels and titles. And the awesome perks that came with moving up the ladder. Seven years at one of the world's most innovative companies convinced me that self-management as practiced at Gore could be exponentially more impactful if successfully implanted in other organizations.

Still, what intrigues and frustrates me is how few workplaces seem to be operating this way. How many times have I heard friends in other companies say, "I hate my job?"? Digging deeper in their stories it becomes clear that their workplace lives are so different than what I experienced every day with my Gore colleagues. It's not the work that they hate as much as the feeling of powerlessness and coercion that their companies seem to breed.

I've thought long and hard about this over the past few years. Why is it that at Gore people basically feel satisfied and fulfilled at work? I think part of the answer has to do with contribution. Every good person I know has a desire to contribute their talents and interests to the fulfillment of their organizational needs. In many dysfunctional workplaces, I hear things like "I can't question the priorities because that's not my job" or "Nobody cares about what I am doing anyway." What if the priorities are uninspiring or the supposed leader has no followers. In a rigid system, there doesn't seem to be the time or place to speak up about those things or to even hope for change.

The discipline of process engineering is about developing systems that are both stable and capable at transforming inputs into intended outputs. Organizations are simply living systems. Embedded within them are many processes that determine the behavioral norms by which people operate. And therein lies the problem. Are the current structures and processes really serving us? Are they based on the values we want them to be? The answer is yes and no. In some cases, it makes sense to not mess with what's working; in other cases, we should not ignore what's clear as mud that needs to change.

The world is in urgent need of new practices and processes to replace the ones that are no longer working. We must design and carry out experiments that validate that the new is going to be better than the old. Ask yourself the question, is the organizational system I am working in really working for me? If the answer is no, ask others the same question. If you keep arriving at the same answer, it's time to experiment. It may seem risky, but is it really? We invest millions on implementing software systems and equipment. What's the long-term cost of not advancing and investing in our organizational systems?

With the principles and practices of others who have been using organizational self-management for decades, there are lots of places to start. Peer agreements, for example, which expand accountability to yourself and a collection of peers instead of just to your boss. It leads to a much clearer understanding of your commitments vs. the typical job description. The best agreements are forged when both an individual's strengths and interests intersect to fulfill a real business need.

Starting this journey is no different than going to the gym to build up muscle strength. If you want to get physically stronger, you need to go beyond talking about it and JUST DO IT! The same holds true about changing our systems and practices at work. If we think of our work habits as muscles, which ones do we strengthen every day in current work cultures? Are they the ones we want to be working on? We better make sure they are. The muscles we spend all day exercising are the ones we bring back into our home lives and thus into our society.

I hope you will think about the follow two questions:

     What muscles are being worked every day at my company?

     Are these muscles helping the organization on the whole?

Anyone who has worked in manufacturing would tell you that a piece of equipment working at 30% efficiency offers tremendous opportunity for improvement. The epidemic of workplace disengagement, only 30% actively engaged according to Gallup, seems like a brilliantly clear investment opportunity. It's not critical that everyone takes the same leap. All that matters is going beyond thinking about it to just doing it. It's the only way we will improve organizational life. And maybe, if we are successful, people will stop saying how much they hate their jobs because they are so enjoying what they contribute.

Kevin O'Brien is an organizational self-management coach, open-space facilitator, and certified scrum master. A chemical engineer by training, he worked for seven years at W.L. Gore & Associates. He is a partner and consultant with NuFocus Strategic Group. Kevin is also a champion for Great Work Cultures, a movement dedicated to unleashing the power within every human organization. He currently resides in the city of Philadelphia. He can be reached at

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