For years, I’ve found it encouraging to see the concept of “self-organization” steadily gaining popularity in a wide range of business contexts. After all, my own work focuses on recognizing organizations as living systems, which are self-organizing by their nature. But I’ve also had the sneaking suspicion that many people mean something different than I do – that we’re actually talking about two different things. 

That suspicion has been confirmed in recent work with a company where self-organization is a major guiding theme. It’s been satisfying finally to get to the root of the divergence in meaning. And it’s been exciting to help that client explore what more the concept can mean for them and how it can serve them even more powerfully than they imagined. I’ll share my high-level observations here in case it’s of value to others and in the hope of sparking broader conversation about these key differences. 

What I’m discovering is that for many companies, “self-organization” means primarily “I organize myself,” and secondarily “we as a team organize ourselves.” This is understood to be better than someone else organizing us. Emerging most of all from Agile methods of software development, the emphasis is on reducing the influence of a manager or boss and instead trusting individuals closest to the work to make good choices, with autonomy, speed and agility. This is in contrast to the traditional command-and-control structure where a manager prescribes and coordinates the individuals’ and team’s actions, in a slower, more burdensome approach.  

This is absolutely valid. But this is not what I’m talking about. Or – it’s only part of what I’m talking about. 

There is something of a third way that isn’t a boss controlling everything and also isn’t (only) individuals or teams independently making decisions. In living systems, it’s the system that is self-organizing. Whether it’s your body, a rainforest, or a colony of bees, any living system exhibits self-regulating, self-governing patterns at the level of the whole system. The parts aren’t independent. On the contrary: they’re so profoundly interdependent that they are able to sense and respond to small changes in the system or in context in order to serve the emerging needs of the whole. Here, self-organization is about mutual dependency and coordination in attunement with the ever-unfolding potential of the whole system. This is the difference between being a collection of single-celled organisms and being a single multi-celled organism, with emergent characteristics and capabilities that aren’t found at the level of the parts. 

In our living organizations, then, the goal should not be autonomy; it should be that we have such a high level of cohesion that our self-initiated individual actions are informed in real time by what the system needs. The better we’re attuned to what the system needs, the more we can each individually make decisions and take action with trust, speed, ease, creativity and inspiration. This is a more complete way of understanding autonomy, beyond just having the right to make a decision alone. What is needed is independence of individual action within and because of profound interdependence at the collective level. Instead of “I organize myself,” or “we organize ourselves,” it may be more accurate to say that the system organizes us. We are participating in the system’s self-realization, as well as our own. 

In fact, it may be even more accurate to talk about self-organizing individuals within a self-integrating emergent system. At one level, we organize ourselves. At another, our contributions are integrated into an ordered and emergent whole. Our job is to work both in the system and on the system, in the individual and collective practice of tending to the needs of parts, relationships and multiple layers of wholeness. These are “life’s universal design principles.” And tending to them is the practice of stewardship.

As I write in The Age of Thrivability

“This means that our most appropriate and important role is not to tightly control the activities of our human systems, but to cultivate the necessary fertile conditions for life to self-organize and self-integrate within them – creating space for people to sense what is needed, to respond wisely and effectively, and to learn and evolve both themselves and the system. 

Beyond management and leadership, this is stewarding life.”

This may seem obvious, and it may be the actual intention behind Agile and other self-managing approaches. But what I’m seeing is that if we don’t make this system-level dynamic explicit, the self-organization trend risks generating silos, lack of coordination, poor decisions, and burnout as people pursue speed and autonomy for its own sake and in isolation of necessary information and relationships. The more complex the context, the higher this risk. 

The great promise of embracing a more complete understanding of self-organization is that it enables us to craft the organization as a dynamic learning ecology. In writing about Frédéric Laloux’s book, Reinventing Organizations, strategy and foresight practitioner Matt Finch nicely sums up such a process and practice: 

“Such transformations could begin with candid discussions around the basics, establishing a culture of mutual respect and responsibility where there is:

  • a shared understanding of what is healthy for the organisation and the community it serves,
  • sufficient information sharing and transparency to delegate decision-making and accountability, and
  • a forum for conversation where each voice can be heard and actions can be determined responsibly.”

The even greater promise of a more complete understanding of self-organization is that our organizations become practice grounds for a more thrivable world. Society doesn’t need more people acting independently as much as it needs people who are attuned to the wellbeing and potential of the whole – the whole community, the whole of life – and who align and coordinate their individual contributions around that. 

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