Climbing the Self Management Mountain Range

Self management may mean different things to different teams depending, among other things, on the scope in which they are being self managed. I’ll give you an example. In Scrum we say that teams are self organised, but what does that mean? Does it mean that they can distribute tasks among team members as they find appropriate? Sure. Does it mean they can decide on how to take days off? Maybe. Does it mean they can decide how to increase the salary of someone within the team? Eeeeh, What?

This model is a simplification of this very complex topic and help managers, coaches and leaders in their approach to self management and delegation.

After several years of working with self managed teams in different countries, we found that Self management is very much like climbing mountains. It can be enjoyable and healthy but also challenging and dangerous. It’s definitely not for everyone and the higher you wanna go, the more practice and preparation you need. You can easily reach a low peak but you need training before you can climb a higher challenge. In the following model, we show the different peaks you will find while climbing towards self management, where to start and where to move next.

The self management mountain range, is based on real mountains (can you guess the names based on their shapes?) and each one of them represents a step towards a more mature self managed group.


We’ll write separate posts to describe what each mountain looks like, with real life examples of teams that we’ve coached or found at the different levels. Are you ready to start climbing? Let’s start with Mount Fuji!

Merit Increase in a self-managed group. Experiment 3: Salary Distribution

Like everything else we do in our office, we keep looking for ways to make recognition and salary increases as engaging as possible. On previous attempts (experiments 1 and experiment 2), the approach was more democratic, people would vote for the best workers and the ones with more votes were strongly considered by management for increases and promotions. This time we tried something fundamentally different. We wanted people to make a conscious decision and make it really count, regardless of whether everyone else was on the same page or not. So this is what we did:

Management gave us the total budget allocated for salary increases, we split it equally by the number of people involved in the exercise and we added just one rule: Your share isn’t for you, it’s for you to give away. How you do it, is entirely up to you, but know that whatever you do, it’ll happen. So you can decide to increase the salary of somebody and nobody will question it. All you have to do is to write an email with your decision and send it to management. The reasons of your decision are appreciated but optional.


To help you understand the method, I will give you a concrete example. Imagine we are a group of 30 employees and there is a 60,000€ budget for increases (Note that we’re talking about annual salary increase, not one-off bonuses). Now, If we split it equally, you’d get 2000€, but again, those aren’t for you, those are for you to give away in whichever way you like. So you could decide to give it all to one person, or split it equally and give 69€ to each employee or decide to give 1000€ to Tina, 500€ to Julia, 300€ to Marta and 200€ to Oliver.

If somebody forgets to do it by the given deadline or doesn’t want to do it, we would split their share equally to the rest.

Once everyone submitted their distribution, your annual salary increase will simply be the total sum of the different amounts that other employees decided to give you. It could be 1000€, it could be nothing or it could be 2987€ who knows.

You may be thinking that this won’t work or that this can’t simply be done. Well, stop thinking, we did it and we still talk to one another.



Here some of the objective facts of our experiment:

  • 30 people were invited to use this system
  • People didn’t know each other’s salaries
  • Only two people didn’t want to participate
  • Only two people gave the full share to a single person. Any thoughts?
  • Only a few people shared their amount with less than 4 colleagues
  • Most people shared their amount with 12 people or more
  • Management didn’t ‘intervene’ and honoured the results as they were


Now, is this fair?

Let’s see. Of course, fairness is an extremely complex concept, here some thoughts that we exchanged after the fact:

  • People who received a total increase, inferior to the original share, felt like they underperformed or came out worse
  • A good number of people felt that not knowing everyone’s salary, prevented them to make the best decision. Others thought that they had no problem recognising top performers regardless of their salary.
  • Half of the people kept their share within their own team while the other half had no problem to send money elsewhere


Our conclusion

Some people feel that bigger teams have a better chance to get more money, others feel that the popular types get more and others that more isolated people who are constantly travelling or working directly with clients would get less due to limited visibility. Maybe so, maybe not. We’re all human and are by nature subjective. We all share the feeling that everybody else will abuse the system, will be unfair and their decision will be influenced by lots of external factors while we, ourselves, will make a proper decision. See something wrong with that assumption?

Is this system perfect? It isn’t. Is the traditional manager-centric approach perfect? It is not. Do we need to keep improving the system next time around? Always.

The main difference between these two systems, and our great win, in my opinion, is that we all participate; and beyond the subjective fairness of the results, the fact that we are even discussing and experimenting with this is a huge cultural breakthrough.

On a personal note, I feel great about having the power of increasing the salary of somebody who under my own criteria deserves it. It’s an incredible feeling and I love working in a place like this one.

After a few rounds of experimenting with promotions, we learned a thing or two about it. Wanna see what we did next? Check out the Merit Increase in a self-managed group. Experiment 4: Star Awards



The Candies Feedback experiment

Candies feedback is a tool we use at our Barcelona office to foster a culture of feedback and continuous improvement for teams and individuals.

The procebluecandybigss is simple: every 6-8 weeks every team/department in the office ranging from scrum teams to Finance or Client Services have a few days time frame to give feedback to each and every other team, in a public and transparent way, with this format:

  • Things that the receiving team is doing great, that help the giving team or the whole organization to reach their goals
  • Things that the receiving team could improve
  • An amount of candies

The reason why we chose to use candies was to avoid any reference to money which could deviate attention from the feedback part. This exercise has nothing to do with performance review.

The amount of candies that goes together with the feedback is the part that’s a bit tricky: for every feedback session each team can give away an amount of candies that is equal to the sum of all other teams’ members:

Team No. of team members No. of candies the team can give away
Lion 7 13
Capricorn 5 15
Gemini 8 12

In this example the Lion team should give away a total of (5+8)=13 candies to Capricorn and Gemini in this edition.

In every edition of this exercise all teams give away their candies based on the feedback they give and they have to give all their candies away. The Candies Feedback application we developed in one of our hackatons suggests by default this amount to be equal to the number of people in the receiving team, which means that a “neutral” feedback should be associated with one candies per person in the receiving team as in the example above. Similarly, a positive feedback should be associated with an amount of candies greater than the suggested one and a negative feedback should be associated with an amount smaller than the suggested one:

Giving team Receiving team No. of candies
Lion Capricorn 3 (out of 5)
Lion Gemini 10 (out of 8)

In this example, in this edition the Lion team chooses to move two candies in favour of the Gemini team, perhaps because their contribution to the organization’s goals or to the Lion team’s goals has been a great one (or maybe because Capricorn team’s contribution has been lower than expected).

Once the round of feedback is closed, every team receives a full report of all the feedback that the other teams have given to them, plus the sum of candies:

Giving team Receiving team No. of candies
Capricorn Lion 6 (out of 7)
Gemini Lion 8 (out of 7)

In this example, the Lion team receives (6+8)=14 candies (something’s going on between Capricorn and Lion, these two teams don’t get along well together…)

Not only each team gets to know what the others say about them: everyone can see everyone else’s feedback and amount of candies, that is, what is said during each edition is completely public and visible to everyone in the office.

Lastly, a big bowl of real and yummy candies is available for all teams to take their part as resulted in the feedback round.



Experiment results

We have run a dozen editions of this experiment in our office. We started with a cheap and disgusting excel spreadsheet and later on developed our own application for that. But what we did not compromise on was office-wide participation: since day one we asked all teams in the office to enter feedback. Most people first reacted to this new experiment just by ignoring it. When urged to complete feedback before the due date, many said things like “We have real work to do” or “I have nothing to say because I do not work with anyone else in the office”. Getting a full round of feedback from everyone was a very tough task at the beginning, as we had to face big resistance to this novelty.

The first edition results caused big shock to some: the very fact that results were public, even if largely advertised beforehand, generated panic reactions in some teams, and a big “Hallelujah” in others.

Over time, teams got used to this exercise and peer pressure started to build up: teams who did not take the exercise seriously or did not give feedback were urged by other teams to do so, taking a load off the organizers’ minds. The “I don’t know what others do” excuse however kept going on for a while. We addressed this in two ways: by asking the complainers to get out of their silos and ask, and by asking the complainees to give visibility of what they do with presentations, demos and other ways of being transparent.

High frequency has been a concern for some teams for a while. We started with a 4-week cadence and after several rounds of feedback on the exercise itself we reduced it to 6 weeks and then to 8 weeks. The key was to create the habit first, and then to start including changes. As of now, we are considering to run the exercise on demand.

One to one phase

Thanks to their inclination to self-management, our scrum teams have taken this game to its next level: at the end of every edition they share between their members all the candies that team has received with same feedback-based mechanism. In the previous example each Lion team member has (14/7)=2 candies to completely give away among the other team members:

Lion team member Candies received
Captain America 2 (out of 2)
Wonder Woman 4 (out of 2)
Superman 1 (out of 2)
Green Lantern 2 (out of 2)
Flash 0 (out of 2)
Professor X 4 (out of 2)
Punisher 1 (out of 2)

In this example, Wonder Woman has had a great edition, while Flash has something to improve according to his own teammates. As per the team phase, we deem very important that real and actionable feedback is given together with the candies.

We deem very important that real and actionable feedback is given together with the candies.


Over time we have applied some changes to the original concept to answer to participants’ feedback about their experience with this game:

  1. Teams now can throw candies away instead of giving them all to other teams: this means that teams can throw candies to a bin, to say that no other teams really deserve those. This is a very strong message that this team has some unmatched expectations
  2. There are extra candies: in every edition there are a few extra candies to give away on top of the normal ones and these can be used to appreciate one team without necessarily take something away from another one