Tips for Encouraging Self-Organization

September 29, 2011 7 Comments

self organization

|Photo by grongar||

Building on yesterday’s post of the video about sociocracy, and inspired by the work of John Buck and Sharon Villines that I mentioned there, I’ve been pulling together a list of ways that leaders at all levels in organizations and networks might encourage more collective self-organizing, self-correcting, resilient and adaptive behavior.  Here’s a start and I invite readers to please add:

  • Create physical conditions where people can “bump into” one another across domains
  • Create open space, in general, both physically and in conversation
  • Double-link between groups/domains, rather than rely on a single representative or messenger
  • Rather than ask for volunteers, invite people to select the best person for the job
  • Distribute decision-making, both operational and policy-oriented, closer to points of implementation
  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Ask questions that expect people to find their own answers
  • Ask strategic questions – “What don’t we know?” “What is the most important question we must answer to move our work forward?”
  • Listen for what people/”the system” want(s)/need(s)
  • Reward innovation and risk-taking
  • Embrace failure as implicit to development – learn from it
  • Do what you do best and connect to the rest – don’t horde an ecosystem, find your niche and connect to others
  • Build measurement into decision-making, including efficient feedback loops
  • Practice authentic communication
  • Share information liberally
  • Model and practice play
  • Consider how to integrate a “loose pieces approach”
  • Trust people

What else, what else?


  • Beth Tener says:

    Great list! Here a few more:

    – Articulate the compelling framing of a vision, clear goals, and what change/actions are needed so people can be motivated to step up

    – Map or index the network/system so people know who is working on what and can see gaps/overlaps and connections to their work and interests

    – Create time and multiple ways for reflective learning, both as a group and as individuals. Small group circles, peer learning conversations, and cross-functional teams are few examples.

    – Managers/leaders focus on strategic intent and periodic checks on progress (vs. micromanaging how it’s done) to give people/teams the space to creatively figure out how to achieve the goal. See this related blog on how overly tight monitoring of employees impedes their learning and experimentation:

    You could also make a list of what discourages and impedes self-organizing and resilient adaptive responses.

  • Rachel says:

    This is great, each bullet could be its own chapter! I would add:
    * Invite dissent
    * Make room for results we can measure, and the ones that can’t easily be measured too
    * Notice when my urge to control the process or outcomes comes up, and release it (and repeat as necessary!)

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks Beth and Rachel! I like your additions. And I like the idea of creating an anti- version of this list – what discourages or impedes self-organization and resilience. I would begin with greed, hording resources, trying to prove oneself over trying to improve oneself and others, trying to do/go it alone, trying to command-and-control, playing it safe, not listening, not asking, no being curious, leading with fear, and just spending time with those who look like/think like/and act like you!

  • Gibrán says:

    Great posts yesterday and today. I’ve been riveted by #occupywallstreet and sometimes bothered, sometimes amused by the mainstream (including the progressive mainstream) reaction to that self-organized effort… more on this blog.

    Great list – I would add that telling our stories has to be an essential part of a culture that wants self-organization to emerge. This is how we find out what we each want and what is common.

  • Curtis says:

    Nice addition, G. Interesting how the various reactions to what is happening on Wall Street seem to ignore the fundamental way that life tends to happen. That, to me, is the biggest shift we need to make. To life!

  • sharonvillines says:

    One way to learn more is to join the discussion list. There are more than 300 people there from newbies to long time practitioners. This is a very helpful post.

    Most people are not encouraged to self-organize as children or adults. Most workplaces find self-organization disruptive. It’s hard to break the training of waiting for directions and not working outside them. Changing takes both expectation, insistence, and support. Support alone won’t do it.

    Sharon Villines,

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