The Self-organising Disappearance

Self-organisation is one of the most common themes of the future of work. It is also the one most likely to disappear in the culture of organisations. Realising self-organisation takes more than new practices. Achieving sustainable self-organisation requires a focus on the culture of management and interactions.

The Self-organising Disappearance

Self-organisation is everywhere. Also, it disappears as fast as it is advocated.

Nobody was going to have a manager. Holacracy was going to bring self-organisation to all organisations but has ended up a niche practice at best. Agile is about enabling self-organising teams to deliver the projects they choose in the manner that best makes sense for them. However in many organisations agile is the way that project teams take orders in fancy new meetings. Open plan workspaces were to enable the new flat organisational models of the future but we just got the funky furniture and the negative impacts on productivity. Enterprise social was to enable widescale self-organising of collaboration but still we spend our time talking about the importance of senior leadership engagement. We could go on.

One issue is core to the failure of self-organisation in many of these approaches. We sold a new work practice that is predicated on a new culture of work, but we left out the culture change. The traditional management culture of efficiency, allocation, command and control embraced the new practices where required, but managed out the threatening and risky self-organisation. When culture is our expectation of how to behave in groups, that expectation will shape any fancy new process or practice.

In many cases, this was deliberate. Fearing that self-organisation was scary or difficult, advocates didn’t promote that element of the hot new practice. Leaving culture change to later is leaving culture change out entirely. In other cases, the scope of the implementation project was not wide enough to allow for sustainable change. Self-organisation doesn’t coexist well with traditional top-down budgeting, human resources and performance systems. Leave those out of scope and they will slow win back control. Many of the new practices were also complete systems that had been developed over time in a specific context. Imposing the practice without the context led to all kinds of inevitable adaptation opening the door to adaptation to suit traditional cultural models of management.

The Power of Self-organisation

Self-organisation is still a key part of enabling organisation to adapt in a digital age.  More businesses face the challenge of moving beyond the predictable repeatable process of work.  As they do so, they discover that top down process centric approaches to work are barriers to adaptation.

The pace of adaptation accelerates when organisations can engage all their employees in learning and initiating change. Self-organisational practices enable employees to quickly identify, test and adapt without waiting for management decisions to change processes, budgets, goals or team structures. Moving decision-making closer to the customer and closer to the edge of the business enables that decision-making to be more responsive to changing markets.

Importantly, self-organisation is also how organisations begin to tackle the pervasive lack of engagement and waste of human potential in traditional bureaucratic structures of management. Coordinating change in one’s own work enables a more direct line to purpose and the value of the work. It enables people to change their contribution to teams to better align to their potential and their growing capabilities. Our organisations come together to better leverage collective human potential. Once that was best done through the management of information and resources in a hierarchical bureaucracy. The challenge now is how we organise for the next level of performance in a competitive fast changing digital market.

Realising Self-Organisation

As noted above, there are many practices that foster self-organisation, but we often miss how they challenge our traditional management practice. Hierarchical decision-making, efficiency orientation, resource allocation through budgeting, inflexible processes and policy and tight metrics are how we ‘do business’. They are the cultural expectations we have of how things are done and they are rarely challenged or considered in organisations. It is for very good reason that any new change in an organisation is met with the questions “who authorised this?” and “do you have budget?”

Introducing self-organisation into your organisation should not be about throwing out the existing culture and incorporating another culture whole. That’s not how culture change works. People don’t embrace new cultural expectations because they are mandated. They are embraced through a process of adaptation, story telling and experience. New rituals are one part of that process but the practical experience of change is what is more powerful in shaping expectations.

Stepping into changes in the way management is done in your organisation also creates new risks. Existing management and their power structures will be rightly reluctant to embrace new risks and lose control of mitigating them at the same time. Organisations that want to move in the direction of self-organisation do so by building foundations for new ways of working that go directly to these anxieties in management.

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Here are a few starting points that we will explore in future posts:

  • Accountability & Alignment: Most organisations claim to have an accountability culture. Few do. Often if they do, it is a culture of individual accountability at the expense of collaboration and alignment. Successful self-organisation requires individuals, teams and the organisation to get used to a dynamic process of managing changing accountabilities and aligning work to strategic goals and purpose. That dynamic process is as much about peer accountability as it is top-down. Organisations need to get get used to new hard conversations. Accountability and alignment must work together to support self-organisation.
  • Measurement & Transparency: Letting people manage their work doesn’t mean ignoring that work. Improving the management of work and learning what works involves a commitment to measuring well and using that measurement for the improvement process. Another shock to most traditional organisations is that self-organisation usually requires increased transparency of performance information to support the culture of accountability and alignment.
  • New People Experiences: Many self-organisation efforts fail because employees won’t embrace the new freedoms of work. Why? Because traditional people experiences mean that these new freedoms are risky. Until performance, job design, remuneration, learning, working approaches and career paths support the goal of greater self-organisation employees will be sceptical to be the only ones taking risks.
  • Degrees of Freedom: Self-organisation doesn’t have to be total. Organisations should adapt their own approaches based on the demands of their market, organisation, business model and strategy. Enabling the right degrees of freedom for employees to create change aligned to strategic value creation is the start. Organisations can then adapt their approach as their culture matures into new ways of working and as the results are delivered.

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