Three myths of Self-Organizing & Self-Management

I’m excited to witness a growing interest in creating better workplaces. In this blog entry I want to dig deeper into Self-organizing and Self-management, the principles that inspire and characterize most of the new ways of working around the world, whether they are labelled agile, teal, holocratic, sociocratic, horizontal or progressive. Why? Because they seem to work enormously well in a variety of organizations, from small start-ups to 80 000+ co-workers, in health care, technology and manufacturing. Morning Star, Haier, Buurtzorg, Semco, BL Information, Favi, Patagonia, and IZettle are just a few examples.

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What is self-organizing & self-management?

What comes to mind when you hear self-organizing and self-management? If it’s individualism, randomness, lack of structure, no leadership, no shared goals, anarchy or chaos – you’re not alone. I believe that part of the problem is that we tend to use the words self-organizing and self-management in a sloppy way, and sometimes even to shy away from commitment and accountability. So let’s begin with trying to understand what it is.

Complex living systems, such as nature, the human body or an organization, have the capacity to self-regulate and self-organize; they exchange information with their environment and use that information to adapt to changed conditions. There are natural, supportive hierarchies in living systems and an innate wisdom that is activated when we refrain from hindering activities. In organizations it can be efforts to control people, mindless budgeting, reporting and goal-setting, or top-down appraisals and decision-making. I.e. a lot of the stuff we’re doing today that we partly don’t believe in, but it feels safe to some extent because everyone’s doing it. And there are aspects that we want to integrate to enable self-organization; most vital is a clear identity, clear boundaries and meaningful feedback loops.

Doug Kirkpatrick, original team member of Morning Star, a company that is built on self-organizing and self-management principles, gives a beautiful description of self-management: ”Self-Management is absence of control by others. It’s the direction of oneself in alignment with one’s personal mission and the overall vision, mission, values and principles of the enterprise. So it’s directing oneself and one’s own activities, weaving one’s talents together with colleagues. There’s an elegance about self-management, managing great complexity with enormous simplicity.”

Another way to put it is to assume that we as adults are capable of taking responsibility for our actions at work in the same way we do in our private lives.

For self-management to work, we need to have certain things in place, for example: Transparency of information, constant communication and feedback, meaningful conversations about the company’s mission, involvement in problem-solving, innovation and decision-making, super clear commitments and practices for holding each other accountable as well as helping one another to learn and grow.

The three myths – loss of control, no need for leadership and chaos

Myth no 1 – I will lose control
A workplace inspired by self-organization and self-management enables more control. Collective wisdom is activated and each individual is responsible for sensing tensions and providing feedback; on anything from process improvements, strategic possibilities, colleagues learning potential, to conflicts between people. And the control we think we have in our traditional organizations is an illusion that we collectively keep alive. Many organizations are under pressure today; may it be fierce competition, rapidly changing customer behaviors, lack of funding or skilled personnel. And we all share a planet that is under immense stress. When stressed or under pressure, as human beings we tend to revert to habitual ways of thinking and doing, even when it’s clear to us that it’s counterproductive.

Myth no 2 – No need for leadership
Leadership has many definitions and is often confused with management or bureaucratic power. If you take away everything that comes with positional power: No authority over others, no title, no resources and no power to sanction, what can you get done? To quote Gary Hamel, Professor at London Business School: ”Now we’re talking about your capacity to lead: to inspire, to get a coalition together, to connect people and build networks, to clear bureaucracy out of people’s way.”  

When I meet managers I get the sense that they are important. When I meet leaders I sense that I am important. Managers tell, leaders ask.” (Chuck Blakeman, author and entrepreneur, on a mission to help us unlearn old habits to shift our organizational culture.)

The self-managed teams at Buurtzorg, a Dutch health care company, is an inspiring example of teams where no-one has power over anyone else. Everyone needs to step into their personal authority, their personal leadership. Natural hierarchies emerge in all living systems, so leadership emerges in these teams as it’s called for, a particular skill is needed in a particular moment and is allowed to surface when nothing is standing in the way.  

Companies benefitting from the wisdom of self-organization and self-management need leadership but they don’t need managers. Some choose to have managers, but with a radically different approach: A curious coaching stance, creating context, supporting team-work and relentlessly removing impediments. Organizations that have transitioned from traditional hierarchies to organizations that can be described as self-organized and self-managed experience the biggest ambivalence among managers, HR, and other staff functions. However, I meet many managers across different functions that are painfully aware that their roles are becoming superfluous, and they are longing for conversations about how they can be of better use to their people.

We need to find ways to support managers to re-shape their identity as leaders with integrity. Helen Sanderson took the initiative to transform her organization. She went from being a traditional CEO at HSA during 18 years, to leading a self-managed organization. Based on her experience she formulates a key challenge: How do you step back from your former role, and still stay sharp as a leader? She also shares the joys she finds in her new role, one being “significantly more head-space”.

“Someone has to be responsible for creating coherence at the core, a dependable and trustworthy identity that people can rely on not to change too quickly.” (Margaret J Wheatley)

Myth no 3 – It’s Chaotic
Organizations built on self-organization and self-management are not chaotic, they actually make more sense than traditional hierarchies. The trick is to enable and trust. They may appear confusing as there are no clear rules for whom to turn to in different matters, and no clear chain of commands. And it may be difficult to draw an organizational chart that describes how communication and feedback flows and how commitments and decisions are made; but we all know that the hierarchical model with boxes and dotted lines has very little to do with reality.  

Crucial competencies in highly autonomous environments

What are some of the key competencies that we need in order to navigate and perform well in these organizations? Based on his experience with Morning Star, and other self-managing companies, Doug Kirkpatrick has coined a few important skills.

Take initiative, speak up and take action.

Mindful consciousness. Ability to be in the present moment, to focus, persevere, and be resilient.

Natural leadership exercised through communication, respect and trust.

Connectivity. Always responding to communication needs which enable collective ownership and early warning systems.

Curiosity and humility. A sincere willingness to incorporate others’ views into decision-making.

Tolerating ambiguity since there’s no clear chain of command and not always clear who to turn to in different matters.

A contribution mind-set. It’s about generosity, always looking for ways to add value to colleagues.

Nurture networks, contributing to constant negotiation of commitments and accountability.

Internal locus of control. To not engage in blaming, be accountable, make aware personal choices without feeling buffeted by outside forces.

Lastly, if you like Pod-casts and are curious about the future of organizations, I recommend Leadermorphosis. While writing I’ve been particularly inspired by the following podcasts:

Episode 23. Gary Hamel on busting bureaucracy for good

Episode 14. Doug Kirkpatrick on principles for self-managing organizations

Episode 22. Chuck Blakeman on re-humanizing organizations

Episode 26. Buurtzorg and the power of self-managed teams of nurses

Episode 17. Björn Lundén on scrapping stupid rules in companies

Episode 1. Perry Timms from PTHR on reinventing HR and work

Episode 9. Helen Sanderson from HAS on reinventing home care

An article from Harvard Business Review on how Spotify manages to balance employee autonomy and accountability, inspired by self-organizing and agile principles.

“Beyond the Hierarchy – Organization 2.0” In this article I describe the need for new ways to lead.


A concrete next step?

We all start where we are, may it be in a traditional bureaucratic, hierarchical organization, or a small start-up. We may have the power to re-write the entire map, or a small part of it. We can however rest assured that it’s possible to create healthy, happy, humane and effective organizations; there are many that are showing us the way. And as I often say, confusion is to be embraced and inspire conversation. By the way, confundere actually means mingle together.

I hope this blog entry can contribute to a head start of Excitement and Growth in your organization 2019.

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Greta Rask, Rask Utveckling



5 Jan 2019