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Self-Organised vs. Self-Managed vs. Self-Directed…What’s the Difference?

Self-organised, self-managed and self-directed…do they mean the same thing or are they actually different concepts, where one might be more desirable over the other?

In the context of an “agile” team, people seemed to use these terms interchangeably. However, it’s important to note that there are subtle, yet worthwhile distinction between each.

Self-Managed Team

A group of people working together in their own ways, toward a common goal, which is defined outside the team.

For example – the CEO of a company decides to launch a new product to address the needs of a specific target market. An initial team is assembled with a budget and high-level timelines. This team decides how they wanted to operate within the given budget. Team will do their own work scheduling, training, rewards and recognition, etc. They typically do a 360 review and rated other team members for salary appraisal. Also the team manages itself and its stake holders. They collectively play the manger’s role.

Self-Directed Team

A group of people working together in their own ways, toward a common goal, which the team defines.

Usually, the team comes together for a common cause. In addition to the characteristics highlighted under the self-managed teams, a self-directed team also handles the actual compensation, discipline, and acts as a profit centre by defining its own future. In some sense, you can think of open-source projects resembling these characteristics. There is a big element of self-selection and built-in synergy.

Self-managed and self-directed have a noticeable differences in terms of autonomy and how they actually operate because of it. Listed below are attributes to consider when deciding how to structure your teams in your organisation:

Attributes Self-Managed Team Self-Directed Team
Goals Receives goals from leadership and determines how to accomplish their goals Determines own goals and formulates a strategy to accomplish them
Commitment/Motivation Requires frequent open-communication from leadership on company goals and objectives to build employee commitment and increases morale Team itself creates an environment of high innovation, commitment, and motivation in team members
Required Skills Conducting effective meetings, problem solving, project planning, and team skills Decision making, entrepreneurship, resolving conflicts, and problem solving techniques
Supervision Requires little supervision to track team’s progress and direction Prefers to work without supervision
Customer satisfaction Can increase customer satisfaction through better response time in getting work done and resolving important customer problems Can delight customers by focusing on innovation, problem solving and reduced cycle time (local, informed decision making)
Time to get team up & running Is relatively faster to get the teams to start working together, if the goal is given to them. Once they get started, they might face challenges due to lack of focus & motivation, but at least they will get started quickly Forming teams of high-caliber people, who can quickly converge on a common goal is hard. It can be expensive and time consuming to keep the team together and resolve conflicts. But once the team gels and get started, their performance is unmatchable.
Supporting Functions Requires some help from supporting teams like Learning and Development, Human Resource, etc. Pretty much self-contained; can manage with very little external support.
Executive Leadership Involvement Requires them to guide, motivate and track team’s direction. Requires a system that provides two-way communication of corporate strategy between leaders and their teams.

Hopefully, this highlights the difference between self-managed and self-directed. What about self-organised?

First let’s understand what self-organisation, as a phenomenon means.


Self-organisation is a process where some form of global order or coordination arises out of the local interactions between the components of an initially disordered system. This process is spontaneous: it is not directed or controlled by any agent or subsystem inside or outside of the system; however, the laws followed by the process and its initial conditions may have been chosen or caused by an agent. It is often triggered by random fluctuations that are amplified by positive/negative feedback. The resulting organisation is wholly decentralised or distributed over all the components of the system. As such it is typically very robust and able to survive and self-repair substantial damage or perturbations.

Self-organisation occurs in a variety of physical, chemical, biological, social and cognitive systems. Common examples are crystallisation, the emergence of convection patterns in a liquid heated from below, chemical oscillators, the invisible hand of the market, swarming in groups of animals, and the way neural networks learn to recognise complex patterns. Self-organisation is also relevant in chemistry, where it has often been taken as being synonymous with self-assembly.

Auklet Flock Shumagins 1986

Sometimes the notion of self-organisation is conflated with that of the related concept of emergence. Properly defined, however, there may be instances of self-organization without emergence and emergence without self-organization, and it is clear from the literature that the phenomena are not the same. The link between emergence and self-organisation remains an active research question.

Self-organisation usually relies on three basic ingredients:

  1. Strong dynamical non-linearity, often though not necessarily involving positive and negative feedback
  2. Balance of exploitation and exploration
  3. Multiple interactions

Self-organisation in biology

Birds flocking, an example of self-organisation in biology. According to Scott Camazine – “In biological systems self-organisation is a process in which pattern at the global level of a system emerges solely from numerous interactions among the lower-level components of the system. Moreover, the rules specifying interactions among the system’s components are executed using only local information, without reference to the global pattern.”

Real Question

Now let’s look at what is a self-organised team? Actually, the real question to ask is, what aspects of the team do they self-organise?

IMHO both self-managed and self-directed teams use self-organisation to achieve their objectives. Self-managed teams mostly self-organises to achieve their tasks, while self-directed team also uses self-organisation to form the team itself. It almost feels like self-managed/self-directed is one dimension (abstraction), while self-organised is a slightly different dimension (implementation.) While it feels like you cannot be self-managed or self-directed without self-organisation, I’m not 100% sure.

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