“architectural structure photography of spiral stairs” by Agnieszka Cymbalak on Unsplash

Self-Organizing 101

Self-organizing teams (as the Corporate Rebels have pointed out) are nothing new, but in the face of increasing complexity it seems more and more companies are starting to practice self-organization in a visible way today. However, there are still lots of uncertainties and misconceptions about this way of organizing. So with that in mind, this blog aims to give an introductory overview of self-organizing teams and organizations — what they are, what they aren’t, and some things to consider when embarking on a journey to become one.

Self-organizing, self-managing, self-governing, bossless, horizontal…there are lots of different terms for this way of working, each meaning slightly different things. For this purposes of this piece, I’ll be using the term “self-organizing” and I’ll borrow the definition that Amy Edmondson and Michael Y. Lee have written to describe self-managing organizations which is:

“those that radically decentralize authority in a formal and systematic way throughout the organization.”

In other words, in a self-organizing team no one person has power over someone else in the organisation. No one person has the command authority to hire, fire and so on. Take Buurtzorg, a neighbourhood nursing organization in the Netherlands with 14,000 employees, no managers, and a back-office staff of fewer than 50 people.

Jos de Blok, Buurtzorg founder, talking about organizing without management at Meaning Conference 2015

We are seeing an increasing interest even from the most traditional organisations in approaches like Agile because most of us can agree that the pyramid, top-down, command-and-control structures that dominate most organizations today are ok at dealing with complicated challenges but not so good at dealing with complexity (see this short piece for an overview of complicated versus complex).

The Cynefin framework for decision-making domains developed by Dave Snowden

In nature we see many self-organizing systems at play like rainforests or flocks of birds responding to unpredictable and ever-changing stimuli. Exponential advances in technology and an increasing interdependence on others to get our work done means that us humans are dealing more and more with complexity, and less with the complicated. Self-organization allows companies to be more agile, responsive and ultimately effective in how they deal with complex contexts. Here are just a few reasons:

  • Authority is pushed down to individuals and teams, rather than being centralized, which means they can respond more quickly and take more responsibility
  • Information is shared widely and transparently so teams and individuals can make faster, more informed decisions
  • With distributed authority and leadership, employees take more ownership for making local improvements and reducing waste, for example
  • The quality of customer service increases dramatically when frontline employees are given the autonomy to decide how they deal with the customer
  • Managers are an expensive resource (Gary Hamel calls this the “management tax”) and removing the need for supervision or management means organizations can be leaner

One of the biggest blindspots when organizations embark on a journey to become self-organizing is developing the “self” part. Most organizations focus on the structures and processes, but forget the human part of transformation. Perhaps the most crucial factor in becoming self-organizing is the willingness and capacity for people to develop. This is especially important if you’re a leader. In fact, as author of “Reinventing Organizations” Frederic Laloux puts it: “an organization cannot evolve beyond its leadership’s stage of development.” However, in a self-organizing team, each one of us will be required to go on a personal development journey because we are much more dependent on each other than we are in a traditional, top-down organization. This is the “I” in “community.” My mindset, my way of being, my way of communicating, my ability to learn and develop — all these things impact on how effective my team and the organization can be in achieving its mission and responding to change. The degree to which we can each manage our own development and seek feedback from our colleagues will determine whether or not self-organization succeeds.

Let’s bust some of the myths and misconceptions about self-organizing teams:

  • “Self-organizing means no structure” → successful self-organizing teams and organizations have very clear and visible structures, often taking more a networked or circular form than the top-down pyramid structure we’re used to.
  • “A company without managers doesn’t work – people need to be led” → the paradox of self-organization is it needs strong leadership to make it happen and for many more people to step into their own leadership. Chuck Blakeman observes that hierarchy reappears in self-organizing companies, it’s just a different kind of hierarchy; one that people actually have a say in and one that is organic and evolving, depending on the needs of the organization.
  • “It’s a free-for-all” → a self-organizing company doesn’t mean everyone gets to do what they want and there are no rules. On the contrary, successful organizations like the leading tomato processing company Morning Star are extremely rigorous when it comes to defining roles, agreeing principles, and creating clear commitments between colleagues, resulting in a strong accountability culture.
  • “It’ll be a slow and painful death by consensus” → autocratic decision-making isn’t replaced with consensus where we can only move forward is everyone is 100% happy. More often self-organizing companies use nuanced decision-making practices like the Advice Process* or tools like Loomio which allow people to gather and process input from their colleagues without needing to get everyone’s complete approval. If it’s a bad decision, it’s a learning moment. As for speed, decisions, especially important ones that affect lots of people, can take more time than in a pyramid, hierarchical organization, but it increases the chances of a good decision. Plus people are more likely to accept the decision because more have been involved in it.

*For more information, see the section on the Reinventing Organisations wiki about the Advice Process here, or this guide by Loomio.

Source: Manuel Küblböck’s blog here: https://medium.com/the-caring-network-company/how-we-make-decentralized-decisions-ad869417b772

As previously mentioned, transitioning to self-organization isn’t just about reinventing structures and processes. It also requires some more human work. We’ve all been conditioned to 150 years’ worth of Industrial Era thinking, which means there’s a lot of unlearning to do in terms of how we think about leadership and collaboration. What skills are needed for self-organization is a whole other blog in itself, but as a starting point, here are three categories of skills to think about and a few examples of each:

  • “Me skills” e.g. self-awareness, internal locus of control, sharing authentically, self-managed learning
  • “We skills” e.g. listening so others feel heard and “felt,” conflict transformation, facilitation, empowering feedback
  • “System skills” e.g. governance, visioning, contributing to our communities and our planet

There’s no one-size-fits-all model (although some organizations have adopted a pre-designed self-management system called Holacracy, with varying degrees of success). Every company is different and so it makes sense to start from where you are and work with what you’ve got. Don’t try and reinvent everything at once. It’s much easier to adopt an Agile approach to transformation. It’s also helpful to have some simple, guiding principles to keep going back to. Here are three that my collaborators and I have found valuable:

  1. Don’t use force to coerce another person
  2. Honour your word and keep your promises
  3. Balance individual needs with the needs of the collective

The first two are adapted from Morning Star’s principles. The third one is useful as a reminder that each individual needs to take care of their own needs (as opposed to the old model where it’s assumed the manager is responsible for my happiness, motivation and so on), while at the same time balancing the collective needs of the organisation. In other words, I can’t just do whatever I want. My actions need to be in service of the organization’s mission and contributing to my team(s). Joshua Vial from Enspiral calls this “conscious autonomy.”

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Lisa Gill

Founder of Reimaginaire, trainer and coach with Tuff Leadership Training, host of Leadermorphosis podcast.