HOW CAN WE GET ANYTHING DONE without formal leaders?

The new everyday life with self-managing teams at The Morning Star Company presented many challenges.

We conclude the story with examples on: How do they make decisions? How do they get things done? How do they handle conflicts? When there is no longer anyone to manage and distribute the work.

By Leise Passer Jensen, November 20  2023

The story started in the first newsletters (read 1 and 2).

How will we ever get anything done when all results must be achieved by influencing and persuading colleagues?” This was the biggest concern of the (former) leadership team now. Managers no longer had the power.

Sure – that was a real concern.

No one had worked without formal leaders before.

It took time for everyone to get used to the new way of working together.

Now everyone was their own leader. The company mission stepped in as the boss and provided goals and direction.

How do you bring ACCOUNTABILITY to the self-managing organisation?

CEO and founder Chris Rufer introduced a principle of accountability. Accountability for achieving results and demonstrating collegial behaviour, among other things. Previously, everyone had been accountable to a boss who was accountable to his or her department with overall responsibility for getting things done.

This was now changed to being accountable to yourself, your team – and to those who depended on your deliverables.

The following principles applied:

  • When everyone does what is agreed, no one has to follow up.
  • If you are delayed or there are deviations, you proactively let people know.
  • This requires the following from all employees: Integrity, honesty and trustworthiness.

Some boundaries had been communicated in advance with some assumptions and guidelines.

How do you deal with CONFLICTS in the self-managing organisation?

But Chris Rufer was prepared for disagreements to arise when someone failed to live up to what they had committed to. Someone would forget to give notice of delays and someone’s credibility would be challenged. It would be human to fail – and completely expected.

To that end, they established the following guidelines:

Parties communicate directly; gossip and backbiting are not tolerated.
Everyone helps each other learn, grow, improve and achieve their goals.
Anyone who experiences behaviour that works against the company’s mission is obliged to do something about it.

Disagreements between two parties are handled in this way: If you disagree on something, you can ask a specially trained colleague to mediate. If the parties still can’t reach an agreement, the parties themselves choose a panel of colleagues to help resolve the disagreement (they do not decide for the parties). Failing that, the last option is to escalate to the CEO, who will try to mediate and, if necessary, make the final decision.

Together with the (former) leadership team and colleagues, Chris Rufer had introduced a ‘Corporate University’, which ensured that colleagues were trained in the new way of working, handling conflicts, communicating, committing, negotiating and listening to others. They were trained that everyone is a leader and everyone is a follower in their organisation with self-managing teams. All new colleagues were assigned an experienced mentor.

A short and mandatory Colleague Accountablity Agreement (CAA) was also introduced, which everyone created, maintained and published on an ongoing basis because everything must be visible to everyone. The document was – and still is – central to the collaboration in the company, and informs colleagues about

  • which work processes you take responsibility for
  • decision-making authority
  • What skills and abilities the colleague has
  • Necessary resources that must be available
  • salary level
  • and other criteria for success

Here is an example of a CAA from Doug Kirkpatrick’s book “The No-limits Enterprise, Organisational self-management in the new world of work”:

Self-management peer agreement - Doug Kirkpatrick

One of the key factors in the success of self-management is that everyone was listened to from the start and was willing to openly and honestly tell Chris Rufer and his colleagues when something wasn’t working. “I need you honest feedback about whether this is going to work or not“, was the clear message from the CEO. And along the way, psychological safety was built up so that colleagues dared to be honest. They wanted to do it because they were listened to and involved.

The transformation summarised

💠 VISION: Chris Rufer wanted to reduce bureaucracy, increase employee accountability and commitment, simplify decision-making processes and make The Morning Star Company an even more attractive place to work.

💠 NETWORK ORGANISATION: He had been studying alternative ways of organising a company other than hierarchy, and decided to see if the leadership team and employees would be willing to experiment and introduce self-managing teams in a network organisation. Not many companies had done it before them, so they had to try it out.

💠 BOUNDARIES: However, Rufer had prepared some essential boundaries and principles for the new way of working together. With no formally appointed leaders to make all the decisions, the boundaries was what would make the experiment work short term and long term.

💠 POWER FREE: He had first pitched the idea to the leadership team, who had figuratively ‘fired themselves’ by agreeing to Rufer’s proposal. Because in the future, there would no longer be titles or formally appointed leaders with the right to decide over others.

💠 ENGAGEMENT: Ideas and proposals for new processes were discussed with all employees in joint meetings. With full openness and transparency, Chris Rufer and the leadership team had listened to concerns and were receptive to new ideas to make things work.

💠 ALL IN: With the initial boundaries in place, The Morning Star Company went all in on self-managing teams in 2004. The company now consists of the world’s largest tomato factories, supplying over 40 per cent of the world market with tomato paste, peeled tomatoes and other tomato ingredients for food manufacturers. They are pioneers in production technology and are actively involved in ongoing tomato research with an annual turnover of over $800 million

💠 💠 💠


Here ends the story of Chris Rupert’s transformation to self-managing teams at The Morning Star Company.

Feel free to let me know: What questions do you have?

And look forward to the next steps:

1️⃣ Stay tuned as I write more about the many exciting aspects of self-managing teams and alternative organisational structures. It will be automatically delivered to your inbox when you are sign up for the newsletter. Only with good stuff.

2️⃣ Get the first part of my upcoming guide with working title From Employee to Collaborator – The handbook that guides you step-by-step from hierarchy to Self-Managing Teams. Let me know (leise@agilit.dk) if you want to be noticed when it’s ready for the first reviews (£0.00).

3️⃣ I have been chosen to translate the book “Beyond Empowerment” into Danish (this is the book where the story of The Morningstar Company’s transition to Self-management is told by Doug Kirkpatrick. I’m currently working on the translation, and you will be the first to know about the Danish version by reading my newsletters.

Thank you for reading along.

– Leise Passer Jensen, Leise@agilit.dk

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Sources & Read More

Sources: The No-limits Enterprise and Beyond Empowerment by Doug Kirkpatrick;

DamnGood Leadership 2023: We are all leaders. We are all followers by Leise Passer Jensen and Brian Dahl – buy the ebook here on Amazon.com

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