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‘What?! Self-organization?! What is self-organization? We have already practiced socialism in this country and it did not work! What nonsense are you proposing?‘ – I received such a comment from a colleague at work when, inspired by F. Laloux’s “Reinventing organizations”, I shared with our team a sensational discovery that we really can work differently!
There are organizations, and in them people, who will never see the value in involving employees in shared governance. There are those who, although they feel the growing discomfort of working ‘in the old way’, remain full of fears and doubts about the incomprehensible concept of self-organization. The resistance is all the greater the more examples of companies wishing to be ‘teal’ and failing miserably in the clash of beautiful ideas and harsh reality are being publicized. Each story is different, but on a very general level, there is a common denominator: there is too much of a gulf between vision and its realization to be jumped over without ‘preparation’ and ‘equipment’.
To be prepared is to be aware, to mature for change. The fish does not know it is in the water. From birth, stuck in a system based on planning and control, domination and submission, competition and self-interest, we are not at all aware that a whole new paradigm is emerging all around us.
My corporate experience
The same management team, which over the years has successfully built a strong corporation based on bureaucracy and the authority of power, receives from the headquarters the challenge of transforming the company into an agile one and flourishing with employee engagement. A leading consulting company is employed (the same one that usually helps to cut costs and improve control processes) and together they plan the change, breaking it down into stages, phases and milestones, enriching the plan with a package of measures and motivating slogans. Information flows from the top down, as always, the feedback is sifted through a dense strainer or ignored, phenomena not matching the plan are addressed individually in order to drive the marauders to catch up with the peloton. The goal of the transformation program is presented as the top of a mountain that we are to climb together by making our best effort. At the top, a huge reward awaits us in the form of an even stronger position of the company on the market and even greater value generated for shareholders.
Do you feel carried away by such a vision? Do you feel more involved? Is there really a change in this change program?
Being ready for a new paradigm is letting go of control and attachment to one’s own infallibility, realizing that the perspective of each of us is only a narrow slice of reality, humility in front of the complexity and unpredictability of the environment, treating employees as responsible, creative and trustworthy.
“Being ready for a new paradigm is letting go of control and attachment to one’s own infallibility, realizing that the perspective of each of us is only a narrow slice of reality, humility in front of the complexity and unpredictability of the environment, treating employees as responsible, creative and trustworthy.”
‘Utopia!’ – you will say – not everyone is trustworthy, not everyone is creative, without a manager there is no pace or consistent direction. A manager should work on developing his / her leadership competencies, including the ability to care for people, delegate tasks, etc. A manager should have a plan and support his / her employees in its efficient implementation.
That perspective is merely correcting the old paradigm. Being prepared to change means being open to entering entirely new territory. My favourite authors who offer inspiration in the area of new paradigm at work are, for example: Stephen Denning, Gary Hamel, Frederic Laloux.
Equipment consists of specific skills, techniques, tools. What kind? Enabling effective building of space for involving people in creating value in the organization, and even co-deciding what this value is, i.e. in which direction we want to go as an organization. If the word ‘space’ sounds enigmatic, I suggest the word system – operating or governance system. Getting to know the existing governance systems, alternative to the traditional management, is like the fish noticing that there is another environment besides water.
Here we come back to self-organization. Self-organization is a term that I use to broadly cover governance systems emerging in the new paradigm – both the ‘home-made’ ones, unique for companies that have evolved them, and those ready, complete, consciously designed, described and tested, i.e. sociocracy and, its close cousin, Holacracy (see my article comparing sociocracy and Holacracy), with their numerous variations. Self-organization is also associated with numerous complementary methods such as non-violent communication (NVC), Beyond Budgeting, Agile, Liberating Structures … this list is already very long and growing.
Self-organization is a set of meta-processes: how to decide together, how to divide the areas of responsibility and decision-making, how to jointly create and develop ourselves and the organization thanks to ubiquitous feedback.
With the help of these meta-processes, each organization develops and continues to improve its own unique way of functioning and achieving goals: how we recruit, how we reward, how we buy, how we create value, how we operate in the office, factory, our store, etc.
Self-organization is concrete and very flexible at the same time. By agreeing to inclusive decision-making and consciously distributed decision-making, each team and person in the organization is invited to be proactive in sync with others.
Thanks to the application of these practices, teams of equal people are able to efficiently, quickly and effectively ‘row’ in a mutually agreed direction and constantly develop the organization, responding in an agile way to the complexity around.
Self-organization is not chaos without a boss, but well-coordinated teams, where everyone can be a leader in their respective areas.
My self-organization experience
At the time when I was a student of the Sociocracy Academy, I was also active in several circles (teams) in the organization that runs the Academy – Sociocracy For All (SoFA). In one of the circles, I was selected by a team to represent our circle at meetings of the coordination team at the level of the entire organization (General Circle). My corporate experience was slightly different from the dominant perspective of non-profit organizations, associations, cooperatives etc. And for this very reason! I was elected once more, this time by the team of the General Circle, as a representative to the Mission Circle, which is more or less an equivalent of a supervisory board in a traditional company.
Note: a representative is a role with full decision-making power in both circles the role connects by its presence: the primary circle and the broader (coordination) circle.
So I, a student who only volunteered to help with organization of a conference, got the trust to co-decide on the overall SoFA operations (in the General Circle) and the right to co-decide on the long-term strategy of SoFA (in the Mission Circle).
This recognition, as well as the process of selecting for the representative role – full of reinforcing feedback and appreciation, were the strongest motivators I have ever received. Can you imagine that in such a situation someone would need a boss’s supervision in order to work well? The awareness that in all teams in which I work I am an equal member, appreciated for the contribution, even if, or maybe because it is different from others, gives me energy, self-confidence, willingness to act in symbiosis with others. This is the power of self-organization.
Interested in how you can be prepared with the equipment to shepherd your organization into the new paradigm? Consider attending one of our trainings or workshops.