Self-Organization Demystified

Self-organization is one of the big buzzwords lately. People are having passionate discussion about wether or not self-organization should be implemented in their company. Some like the idea of increasing teams’ autonomy whilst others are convinced that self-organization is harmful and teams have to be managed in a more traditional way. But one thing is overseen frequently: you do not have that choice!

Let’s start by understanding what the term actually means:

Self-organization describes how social systems naturally build and sustain structures and practices through autonomous interactions and processes.

translated from https://now-new-next.ch/selbstorganisation-was-ist-das/

Now what does that imply? Even though science is still discussing if self-organization automatically is part of every social system, odds are that it is in your environment. There are many examples most of us know. Remember the last time your management team (you may exchange this by taskforce, workgroup, …) was working on that confidential topic? They really tried to make sure that no information would be passed to others before they decided to do so. When they finally presented their results, almost everyone knew about their work already. Information was passed through office grapewine and there was no way to prevent that.

What happened here? People did make use of an informal structure to pass information. Often this is done based on relationships people have with each other. Probably conversations like “Hey Sam, did you already hear about…? No? Ok, listen, … I trust you – please do not tell others about it!” And you know that Sam is gonna pass that information to someone else that he trusts.

But this article is not about office grapewine or trustful relationships. The important thing is that within this social system people passed on information in a self-organized manner. They did it because it seemed to be reasonable regarding their personal needs or goals. They did it even though they knew that the organization doesn’t want them to. The formal structures tried to prevent them from doing so, but without success.

Once you realize that self-organization happens wether you want it or not, you will find lots of examples surrounding you. I saw hidden backlogs in teams that wanted to work on things that did not fit in the shining OKR-framework the company just installed. They did not change their goals just because that new management framework appeared. I helped product owners to “calculate” effort based on story points. The product owners were asked to post reports about efforts to the holding company. As we never measured effort and did not see any reason to do so, we faked the data, stabilized the existing practices instead of adapting them.

Ok. Self-organization exists wether we want it or not. It is essential to understand that it is not good or bad in general. Self-organization is always trying to fulfill needs or achieve goals that are present within the social system. For companies this means that self-organization can be something great (i.e. the needs and goals of the social system are in alignment with the company’s goals) or something harmful (i.e. self-organization leads to structures and practices that do not support the organizational goals). From the company’s point of view the second is just leading to more waste that hinders the success (people working on translating story points into measures of effort do not produce value).

In conclusion we should talk about self-organization as an organizational pattern that exists and that we need to integrate actively into our organization. You got a choice there. You might try to install structures and procedures that allow the social subsystems in your company to fulfill their goals and needs while working on the company’s goals. That way your social systems have less reasons to install alternative structures and practices suiting their own drivers. And you can try to make sure that the social systems are sharing the companies values and goals. That way self-organization will produce more structures and practices that help the organization to be successful. It’s up to you.

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