The Secret To Self-Management And Organizational Success

At its core, business is simple. It is about serving others. People make it complicated. Re-focus on the basics: serving your employees, customers, and communities then abundance will follow.

Imagine if . . .

  • Everything your employees did had meaning and purpose for them and your organization.
  • Employees always knew what to do and where to focus their efforts because of common purpose.
  • Employees had simple, understandable rules to guide them towards common purpose.

How much more engaged and productive would they be? How much more successful would your organization be?

No Purpose, No Will

I recently visited Oxford Castle in England where I experienced the Crank Machine, a tool of physical and psychological punishment utilized in the 19th century prison system.

As the name implies, the Crank Machine has a handle which can be turned or “cranked.” The hardship: this particular handle is connected to nothing but pulleys and brakes, making the turning of it more difficult. Think about the toughest spinning class you ever attended and then some. With a stationary bike you don’t go anywhere, but you can achieve an effective and balanced workout. The Crank Machine was tied to nothing productive. As a form of punishment, prisoners were compelled to turn it up to 15,000 times a day in their jail cell.

The Crank Machine’s sole purpose was to break the will of prisoners – to extinguish their purpose and engagement in life.

Stop Breaking The Will Of Your Employees

Do you hold weekly business update meetings no one finds valuable, but fail to rework them for the benefit of attendees? Have you asked for such meeting feedback?

Do you request weekly work updates from your employees? Or worse, daily updates? While your intentions may be good and have business value, do your employees perceive the reports as simply a way to make sure they are working when not supervised?

While my Crank Machine example is admittedly extreme, modern organizational tasks perceived to have little or no value can have the same, negative impact on employees. The very act of doing such work could demotivate and punish someone wanting to make a difference in your organization.

Studies show nothing is more disengaging than doing work without perceived value, even if you are paid well for it.

So, how do you eliminate wasteful, non-value added work in your organization and benefit from deeply engaged, self-managed employees? Keep your business simple, maintain common organizational purpose and follow the ants.

Let The Ants Lead

Did you know highly organized ant colonies – sometimes numbering in the billions – have no leadership? Despite this, ant colony organization is so advanced, effective and purpose-driven that notable companies like Southwest AirlinesAir Liquide and others have used their pattern of behavior to solve complex business challenges.

Ants are self-managed. They use triggers and interactions in their local environments to independently guide their work decisions. This is possible because all ants embrace a common purpose and follow a few, simple rules.

When building their nests, researchers discovered three, main rules ants consistently follow:

  • They picked up grains at a constant rate, approximately two grains per minute
  • They dropped them near other grains, forming a pillar
  • They choose grains previously handled by other ants

It can be deduced from the research that ants self-manage themselves based on the rhythms and connections in their environment. In a human equivalent, these connections could be the rate others are working nearby and what is seen/heard in their area. Providing there is common purpose for every person involved in the task, no defined leadership is needed to accomplish it. Successful examples of this self-managed model can be found in thriving organizations like L.W. Gore & AssociatesZapposThe Morning Star Company and Treehouse.

Discover Your Organizational Purpose

To create an environment which fosters a high level of self-management and engagement, employees must be aligned under a common organizational purpose. A simple way of discovering this purpose would be to ask the following questions:

  • Why does my organization exist?
  • Why was it started in the first place?

By flipping the questions around, you can gain a powerful new perspective on your common organizational purpose:

  • What would happen if my organization disappeared today?
  • Would it be missed?
  • Would my customers struggle? How?
  • Would my market struggle? How?
  • Would life go on without missing a beat?

By answering these questions and having your employees do so, too, you can gain useful insights into what is really valuable work – that which serves your employees, customers and community – and what is simply wasting time and disengaging your workforce.

Let your organization evolve from employees with a common purpose. Go back to the reason your organization exists in the first place – its purpose – and focus only on work which feeds that purpose.

How far off is your organization from this model? Please let me know in the comments area below.

Also, check out my new book How to Find a Job, Career and Life You Love (Second Edition) at


Published on Forbes, 29th August 2014

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