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Daniel Hulme
Daniel Hulme

What is: Self-organisation?

Posted on 3 June 2016

A new species of organisation is gaining dominance, particularly in the tech start-up and software development communities, although there are plenty of inspiring examples in all industries from manufacturing to healthcare. The methodology is taught in red brick universities and it’s a hot topic in economy, psychology and management blogs. Those companies that cannot immerse themselves fully are applying aspects of the approach to their strategies in search of the holy grail of smarter, happier, more impactful work ecosystems.

Better methods of organising and harnessing human talent is not just about happier people, it represents a sustainable business advantage.

The basics

Self managing work organisations are highly organised, information rich ecosystems. Individuals form multidisciplinary teams with agreed processes to execute strategic goals. There are no bosses or hierarchy but it would be incorrect to say there is no leadership. Leadership is fluid with individuals gravitating to influential activities naturally according to their talents and the respect of their peers.

Self-organising organisational designs are typically environments that enable individuals to maintain a high degree of autonomy over their work. In the absence of managers colleagues provide commitments to each other and the concept of the workplace as a community is placed in high value.

What does it look like?

Have you ever seen a flock of geese in formation? The V-shaped pattern is optimal, it provides lift and reduces air-resistance. The flock can go 70% further than one goose on its own. The technique is learnt, when they drop out of synch it becomes so much harder, stragglers rejoin quickly.

It’s quite noisy; they honk at the rotating leaders to encourage them and most endearingly of all an injured individual that needs to drop out will never be abandoned. Two guardians will hang back as long as it takes for the situation to resolve.

“The only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

Self-organising ecosystems are vibrant and inspiring places to work. They attract talent, particularly those drawn to heuristic activities such as problem solving because they think very deeply about the environment needed for people to actually like waking up to go to work, day after day, year after year.

Cheat sheet

Self-organisation has a few key principles which we explain below.

Knowledge Share Information about real day to day work gushes freely. Copious use of Slack, Skype, Asana or other project management and comms systems links distributed teams and connects the individuals between face to face encounters.
Consultation Process Used to describe the decision making process. Broadly framed as an imperative to seek and hear the opinions of as many people as appropriate, in appropriate forums, over an appropriate length of time.
Retrospectives A Retrospective is a practice where teams get together to reflect on the way they work. Formats change but focus is on how and why rather than what. Emotion and personal development talk is commonplace.
Agile An established software development process that delivers a ‘minimum viable working product’ at each milestones. Team are multidisciplinary and work effectively as requirements change constantly, making each iteration relevant and useful. This methodology is now being applied outside software engineering across many areas of self-organising organisations.
Intrinsic Motivation Self-organisers hold to the idea that once finances answer basic needs folks tend to be motivated by intrinsic factors such as the desire to achieve mastery of something, a pull towards autonomy over tasks and time and a wish for connectedness both to their immediate community and to a higher purpose.

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