Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Self-organising to a pub?

I have seen managers struggling with self-organisation, to the point of hesitating to lead, because “it would not be self-organising”. As much as I hope for a replacement to prevailing tayloristic / Theory X management, this goes too far and is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

One company's board was expecting the company to self-organise into a sociocracy. A CEO was expecting his team of software developers to start selling themselves. Neither  would not even communicate their wish to the company, because that would be leadership, and not self-organisation, which is what they want.

People are expecting their subordinates to spontaneously self-organize into a self-organizing organization.

Come again?

That's not how self-organisation works. Or rather: that is exactly how self-organisation works. You are witnessing the company or a team go about it's business and self-organise in a myriad of ways. It's just that none of the ways they self-organise is what you would want to: whether it be Sociocracy or Teal or starting to take business responsibility of themselves.

Here's the thing. People always self-organise. Drop a bunch of people into a room and they will soon start doing something you did not anticipate. Perhaps they start playing a game, goof off, or self-organise themselves into the nearest pub. Now the question is: does that self-organisation happen in a direction beneficial to you? If not, how could you prod the people so, that they would self-organise in a way valuable to you?

Enter leadership: giving goals, challenges, facilitating group work, framing, coaching, time-boxing, and such. Leadership is other things than bootcamp-style shouting or management by perkele, too.

Complexity science provides some theory for this. Most human systems are complex adaptive systems, and are by definition self-organising. If you want that self-organisation to happen in a way beneficial to you or your organisation, you are going to have to manage it. As Dave Snowden puts it, "we manage the emergence of beneficial coherence, within boundaries, within attractors."
(If the previous was kafka to you, check out this, this and this, for a quick primer to Cynefin and managing complex systems.)

In English: a leader can set boundaries for a group, and prod them in various ways. If a prod produces beneficial behaviour, blow more energy to it. If the behaviour is not beneficial to you, dampen it and try something else. It’s not as difficult as it sounds, and most people do this naturally.

So what could this sound like in practice? Here's one example:

"Hey people, we've got this situation with the company, and I'd like you to come up with a solution for xyz. Could you take a week and come up with some ideas? How does this sound, make sense? Let me know if I can help."

So how to walk the path between autocratic and anarchistic management? How to foster self-organisation and use all the brain-power of your subordinates? And avoid anarchy with everyone self-organising into different directions? The key is to find the right balance of freedom and boundaries. You could try some of the following:
  • Give objectives instead of tasks, let your subordinates figure out how to reach them (military folk call this mission-command or mission-tactics doctrine)
  • Ask “What do you think about this?” and “Any thoughts?” a lot.
  • Learn to stay quiet and to tolerate silence. It is difficult, but very powerful. Google “hold space”.
  • Learn some facilitation and coaching skills
Self-organisation happens whether you want it or not. That's just the nature of human beings and human systems, like teams and companies. If you are waiting for a group of people to spontaneously self-organize in a way you expect, bring a tent. It could be a long wait. Alternatively, consider taking ownership of the situation and adopting a more active approach.

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