Self-Organization Walks Into A Bar…

self-organizing nanobristles.
Self-organizing nanobristles.

My micro-blogging has gone from being in the back seat of priorities to being out past the trailer, riding on a skateboard hanging on to a rope tied to the axle. That being said, the topic of self-organization keeps launching itself onto my windshield like a southern cicada in August, so it’s time to take to ye old keyboard. 

Let’s clear some of the proverbial air around self-organization by understanding the origin of the concept. It did not suddenly find itself inside of agile principle #11 one morning after a bender.

Self-organization is a naturally occurring phenomena observed in various sciences for decades. There are common themes that have been consistently observed in all self-organizing situations:

  • Order or coordination arises out of the individual interactions of the subjects (people) in the group (team) inside of a system (organization)
  • The system (organization) itself exhibits order or coordination as a result of the behaviors of the individuals inside of the groups (teams)
  • The decentralization of decision-making results in a more robust system (organization) that can adapt and self-repair
  • There are always rules that govern the boundaries of the system and its groups

That’s right. Self-organization only occurs within boundaries, and it results in order. In physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology, the pattern is consistent. 

If your team’s decisions and interactions do not bring the team closer to “order” then the team is not self-organizing. 

When working in or coaching a team that has self-organization as a focus, ask:

  • What are we doing as a team that contributes to creating order (or predictability, or consistency) in our work?
  • How do we know we are improving? Or declining?

Most agile practitioners agree that managers do have a role in self-organization, just as the laws of chemistry influence the self-organization of microns. Rather than churning over the specific role and responsibilities of those managers, I prefer this approach: Let’s look at what the outcome of a self-organizing team should be and identify what might be holding us back from achieving that outcome.

Ultimately we want to know that we can give a team a goal, and know they will come up with the best solution to achieve that goal – but we also need to be able to track progress against that goal. If a team has no order or coordination, we have no predictability. We have no way of knowing when we will achieve the goal, if we are in trouble or need to do something differently – and that lack of order circumvents the whole point of agility. We should want to know if we are missing the goal so that we can adapt, improve, and deliver value.

In short, self-organization is not a buzzword nor is it something we need to reinvent. There are natural laws that govern it, and decades of research we can learn from. Managers and coaches should help teams understand why they need order and what can be gained from it, and then support them by providing the boundary inside which self-organization flourishes.

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