Is your organization moving toward a less bureaucratic structure? Is it also looking to remove traditional hierarchical decision-making? Congratulations! Many organizations are undertaking this journey to tackle the growing complexity of the modern workplace. In the context of the world we live in, companies must evolve in this direction to survive and thrive.
In this article, we will share some underlying assumptions behind self-organization. We will also share some of the typical “growing pains” of self-organization and how to overcome them.
A word about self-organization
In our opinion, self-organization is not about loosening or relinquishing control. Nor is it about changing management style to “motivate” or “engage” employees. It is about putting control where it can be best applied: with the people who have the expertise to make decisions on how to best do the work.
At its core, self-organization assumes people can learn to perform many different functions. This includes how to get organized and hold themselves and one another accountable. It is more than a change in human relationships; it is a change in the structure of the system.
There is a big risk in thinking exclusively of self-organization as “getting rid of command and control.” Without a suitable alternative in place, we may also be getting rid of clarity of authority and process. Without this clarity, we may no longer know who can decide what, or which processes to follow. Becoming self-organized means that a group of individuals and interactions, also known as “the team,” will begin to make the decisions previously made by a manager, process or tool.
Since every self-organizing team works within a unique context, this raises many questions: What exactly is the team responsible for and not responsible for? Which decisions does the team have the authority to make? Which decisions will management make? How can the team both make these decisions, and hold themselves accountable for them? What happens if the team fails? Not taking the time to explore these questions can cause confusion, ambiguity, anxiety and frustration for everyone involved.
In working with organizations dedicated to opening up their culture toward self-organization, we have observed three common growing pains:
- Not knowing where to start
- Not creating a safe space to learn
- Not building individual and collective capacity
Growing pain #1: Not knowing where to start
One obstacle many teams encounter when faced with a big challenge is not knowing where to start. For some teams, expressing this can be difficult. Instead of acknowledging that they do not know where to begin, they may talk about how the end goal is unfair or unrealistic. Another manifestation of this is when teams ignore the challenge and continue to do things as they have always done them. In such situations, it can be helpful to start a conversation with the team, discuss the challenge, and brainstorm ways to face it.
The same idea applies to self-organization. It may be necessary to clarify what self-organization means in your specific context in order to arrive at a common understanding. It may also be necessary to identify some of the first steps with your team. What would they like to focus on doing differently? What would they prefer to learn in the first month? In what area would they want to have more authority and take on more responsibility?
Start anywhere! Don’t spend a lot of time identifying the “best” place to start; there is no such thing! Simply start where there is the most drive and passion to make a change. This, in fact, is the best place to start. Guide the change by focusing on what can be learned by starting there. Create momentum by building on what you are learning every step of the way.
In the Agile world, this is what Scrum Masters facilitate at every retrospective. It’s fine if the team doesn’t get everything right at the start of their journey. The key is for the team to embark on a cycle of continuous improvement by starting within their own context.
Growing pain #2: Not creating a safe space to learn
Another challenge teams face is the search for perfection. Before embarking on any learning experiment, they want to have the perfect solution already mapped out and do a lot of preparation work. However, what they don’t realize is that it can take a long time for these first pieces to fall into place! And during this initial setup, they are not learning. It’s like practising swimming strokes on the shore rather than jumping into the water and simply learning by swimming. We call this phenomenon “dry swimming.”
There are two key things you need to watch out for in this type of situation. The first is helping the team learn by doing something useful and valuable. The second is wondering whether they are aiming for perfection because they feel they can’t make a mistake and must get it right the first time.
If you are a leader, how are you feeding into this situation? How can you create a space in which the team is willing to try in order to learn, rather than needing to be successful? How are you preventing the team from trying something different? Can you recognize when your own fears prevent them from trying? This should not be taken as a criticism; we want you and your team to be successful, but we also want you to accept that you may not be successful every time.
As a leader, you also need to be able to recognize when limiting beliefs and/or the organizational culture are kicking in. You may genuinely want your team to experiment—which is great—but if your employees have experienced a culture of blame in the past, then they may still be holding back simply out of habit.
Growing pain #3: Not building individual and collective capacity
A third challenge teams face is impatience—with themselves, with each other, with the process and with the team as a whole. Self-organization can indeed speed up decision-making processes, and make the organization a faster, more Agile and more resilient learner. However, it won’t happen by simply saying so! It takes work—both individual and collective—to change the culture and create new patterns of interaction. “How we work here“ will not change in a day.
It can be easy to look at your team’s growing pains and forget that self-organization assumes people can learn to organize themselves. You may even look at your team’s growing pains and draw the conclusion that “self-organization doesn’t work;” at least, not in this context, with your people, at this point in time. Remember: the key assumption is that people “can learn,” which is very different from “should have learned by now” or “will never learn.”
The capacity to self-organize is both an individual and a collective one. Individuals must build the capacity to do the following things:
- (Really) listen to one another
- Express themselves in new ways
- Build trust and engage in creative conflict
- Design and facilitate meetings
- Design and facilitate decision-making processes
- Apply systems thinking
- Take responsibility for the team’s whole task
Collectively, a team must build the capacity to continually improve how it functions as a unit. A few years ago, Google conducted a large research project based on the question, “what makes a team effective?” They found that what really mattered was not so much who is on the team, but rather, how the team works together. In fact, variables such as collocation, consensus, extroversion, individual performance, workload, seniority, team size and tenure did not have a significant impact on team effectiveness.
They found that the top five factors for effective teamwork are:
- Psychological safety: “If I make a mistake on our team, it will not be held against me.”
- Dependability: “When my teammates say they’ll do something, they follow through.”
- Structure and clarity: “Our team has an effective decision-making process.”
- Meaning: “The work I do for our team is meaningful to me.”
- Impact: “I understand how our team’s work contributes to the organization’s goals.”
Building individual and collective capacity is an ongoing process of improvement.
Self-organization is like a never-ending journey. For many, it is a new way of showing up, working and relating. For some, it challenges their mindset around what a workplace is and should be, how things (ought to) get done and what is possible. For most, self-organization can be overwhelming at times, triggering feelings of confusion, frustration and anxiety.
In our coaching work, we are impressed, excited and touched by what self-organization can bring to the workplace. When people “get it” and start taking collective ownership, their workplace transforms. The organization’s structure and processes begin to provide better support for the work they love to do. Laughter increases, people take more initiative, reach out and engage with one another.
Teams and managers gain a lot when they become more aware of these three growing pains. It supports them as their processes and structures shift toward self-organization. The good news is that experiencing growing pains means you are actually growing.