What’s in a name?

In a recent post I wrote about the pitfalls of self-management, Bonnitta Roy (a top leadership writer here on Medium), called my attention to the term “self-management” I had been using. She explained in a comment that she prefers to use the term “self-organisation”:

“When we make “self-managing” an ideology, rather than an option in a range of patterns available in human organizing, we make the same mistake as when we make hierarchical power an ideology — we cut off the natural, evolutionnary genius in human relating, and we create organizations that are less responsive to shifting contexts and conditions.”

I have always felt uncomfortable with the term self-management because it has the word “management” in it, which for me has too many industrial, Taylorist associations. It is a widely used term, however, here on Medium, for example, and in publications like the Harvard Business Review. As for self-organising, I had resisted this term in the past because it didn’t seem to convey the absence of bosses, a characteristic of the companies that I’m interested in researching and writing about — organisations where everyone is jointly responsible for the sustainability of the company. Self-organisation could easily describe a team of people that can organise themselves, but they still have a boss and operate within a hierarchy. So what term should I be using?

What is a self-organising team?

When I put this question to my wise and well-read colleague Carl Erik, he referred me to this article from 2014 called “What are self-organising teams?” In it, I found this matrix:

Source: https://www.infoq.com/articles/what-are-self-organising-teams

Here we see the term “self-managing”, used to describe teams who monitor and manage work process and progress and execute the team task. However, they have two further descriptions of teams, all sitting under the umbrella term “self-organising teams”. However, this matrix helped me confirm that I’m most interested in self-governing teams. Here’s a definition of the word govern from English Oxford Living Dictionaries:

govern

verb

  1. Conduct the policy, actions, and affairs of (a state, organization, or people) with authority.

For me, this word authority is really important. I believe it’s different to power, the term we usually associate with traditional hierarchies. (See also this great post by Tom Nixon about authority as in authorship in organisations.) I’m interested in organisations where people have the authority to (as the matrix shows):

  • set the overall direction
  • design teams and their organisational context
  • monitor and manage work processes and progress
  • execute team tasks

Governance is something that’s being talked about more widely these days thanks to Sociocracy 3.0 and Holacracy. Sadly, it’s not a particularly human or inspiring term. When I talked to another wise and informed colleague Perry Timms, he agreed that ‘self-governing’ has connotations of formalised ways and fits with rules and laws. He said when we’re talking about accountability and creativity, perhaps ‘self-determined’ is more fitting.

Does language matter?

Last week, I met Joost Minnaar of Corporate Rebels and asked him what he thought. Is the term self-management limiting? Is self-organising or self-governing better? “Who cares!” he replied simply. Then he added something to the effect of: “Language doesn’t matter as long as we’re having the conversation.”

I noticed a similar debate the other day swelling in the comments of a piece provocatively titled: “Cut the bullshit: organisations with no hierarchy don’t exist.” There were some thoughtful comments, largely agreeing with the author’s stance, but challenging her use of the word hierarchy to describe expressions of power and influence in a self-organised company. One commenter suggested alternative terms like ‘heterarchy’ or ‘equipotentiality’.

Ultimately, I believe language is subjective and these are still, in many ways, emerging concepts, so it seems unlikely that I’ll stumble across a perfect, all-encompassing term that will be universally liked! I think I’ll play around with the terms self-organising, self-governing and self-determining for now.

What’s important, as Joost says, is that there is a dialogue. Perhaps for now, when it comes to language to describe these self-managing/governing/organising/whatever teams we can simply have strong opinions, loosely held.

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Lisa Gill

Lisa Gill

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