How many "management secrets" have you seen in print lately? And once they are in print are they really a secret?

Not too long ago an article appeared in a respected management journal that described what may be a legitimate management secret, unrevealed because the productivity it fosters is a competitive advantage users don't wish to broadcast. Interestingly, two local small businesses, Century Software and The Parvus Corp., have adopted this management approach as a solution to growth related challenges.This management method is known as the self-managed team or group, and alternatively as "ring management" (a reference to the round table approach promoted by this management system). Companies that have used a self-managed group approach consistently report a 20 percent plus improvement in productivity when compared to similar operations that have used more traditional management methods. Under traditional methods, power and initiation rest directly with a leader. Self-managed work groups operate to shift the source of initiation and follow-through from leader to follower, because the work group leads itself through self-management.

In technology-based companies, a common problem that confronts founder/entrepre-neurs who are often the technical force behind the company product, is how to prevent the growing management task from totally consuming the time needed for absolutely essential research and development in technical areas. The frustrations and disasters that revolve around this dilemma are legendary.

At Apple Computer, for example, Steve Jobs brought in John Sculley to manage the business but ended up "on the street" (although rich). Key lieutenants in other companies complain that they may have to "shoot the inventor" before they can produce the product, because the endless tinkering by an engineer/owner defies business realities. Still other founder/entre-preneurs try repetitively and unsuccessfully to bring in a succession of "business mangers" who fail because the quick reaction times required in a growing venture are incompatible with the inevitable learning curve. Simply stated, a newcomer often can't do enough fast enough to keep up. Hence, for these and other reasons, the move toward self-managed groups is gaining momentum.

According to an ancient Chinese saying, "The best of all leaders is the one who helps people so that, eventually, they don't need him." In a sense, self-managed groups make this possible in a small business (which incidentally includes successful application in companies up to and exceeding 300 employees). Under the self-managed group approach, the founder/entrepre-neur as leader, retains a direct and significant role in decisionmaking, while gradually divesting duties which can just as capably be performed by a trusted group of key managers who work together according to this unique system.

For a self-managed group to operate effectively requires real commitment. Group members must commit to a level of teamwork that does not come naturally to most people. Training in group processes is very helpful in this area when getting started. Communications skills, group conflict resolution capabilities, and effective meeting methods are all essential skills to learn.

The founder/entrepreneur has required commitments as well. The management ring must be trained in the skills of self-observation, self-evaluation and self-reinforcement. Studies show that the activities of the self-managed group must somehow be coordinated using these "self" skills for the management system to be effective and achieve the potential grains in productivity. There is a paradox here: Someone (usually the company leader) must be responsible for a team that is designed to be self-managing. But the trade-off appears to be worth it. For the small amount of time spent in facilitation, a founder/

entrepreneur can gain a large amount of time free from the myriad daily decisions assumed by the team.

Lastly, successful self-managed groups require commitment to an explicit set of procedures and operating methods to ensure that the group process becomes a living reality. On-the-job training and practice using the methods of self-management are vital for the system to succeed.

Now, it's not a secret, at least to our readers. Productivity increases and gains in time available to foun-der/entrepreneurs can be very real using the self-managed group approach to small business growth.

Ronald K. Mitchell is a CPA who researches and writes in the field of entrepreneurship and serves as a management consultant in Salt Lake City.

Ronald K. Mitchell, 1990