The Triangle of Self-Organization

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One of the key aspects of contemporary management is the emphasis on self-organizing, empowered teams. In this article I discuss self-organization more in depth.

First, the name itself is slightly misleading. Self-organization is not something that happens spontaneously – it emerges only if certain conditions are present. I call them the “Triangle of Self-organization”.

First and foremost there must be a clear goal that everyone knows and wants to achieve. This goal can be stated openly or just implied, but it must be present and known to the group. The goal will shape how the group will organize itself – different goals require different sets of skills applied in different sequences.

Then we need some rules of behavior. They will govern the group as it organizes to achieve the goal. Those are the shared “dos” and “donts” of the group. They will wary from case to case and they can also be stated or just assumed. In most cases the rules will come from the organizational context the group operates in, but some rules will also be added by the group itself.

And finally pressure is needed to get the group going. Motivation is something that is also pushing the group towards the goal, however the motivation is usually a long-term sentiment whilst pressure is short term. The motivation can have different sources, but the pressure usually comes from time – something has to be accomplished before something else happens or a deadline is due.

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A compelling goal, a set of clear rules and a bit of pressure are what is needed to get self-organization going.

Modern management renounces traditional command&control approach. Instead it relies on indirect direction through setting the elements of the triangle to achieve self-organizing group that will work towards the desired goals. The power of this approach lies in the lack of formal structure within the group – as it works towards the goal it can re-shape itself as needed. It is also more engaging and fulfilling for the participants, because they have a large amount of freedom to apply their best abilities to the problem at hand.

In other words, modern management is not about ignoring the team in hope it will find itself something meaningful to do. It is rather about first choosing the team wisely, then showing it a goal, giving it a set of rules, applying some pressure to get it going – and then carefully, empirically controlling these parameters as the work progresses.

A good example of how the Triangle is applied is Scrum. In a Sprint (an iteration of set duration during which a version of the product must be built) there is a goal (a subset of a larger product vision applying to this sprint), there is a set of rules (some come from Scrum itself – like the prescribed daily meeting – others are developed by team itself or come from the organization’s standards) and there is a short deadline – a sprint is never longer than 30 days – that applies the necessary pressure. The team is free to work as it wants within those boundaries. This is when productive self-organization emerges.

I developed the Triangle of Self-Organization model a couple of years ago to better explain managers what is their role with agile teams. I thought it would help them  better understand what they have to provide in order to achieve the promised benefits of self-organization.

Over time I felt there is a fourth element that needs to be added – information. How the three elements of the Triangle will work in shaping a self-organizing group depends also on the information that is available to that group. People can base their actions and decisions only on what they know. It is like water or air in which the group is immersed – its behavior will depend also on what is in that air. It is in our best interest to ensure the group has all the relevant, up to date information about their work, their environment and everything that may impact their efforts to achieve the goal.

At this point I will contradict myself: self-organization indeed does occur seemingly on its own. However, in most cases it is not productive, not the self-organization that we would like to see in good companies. For the most part the spontaneous self-organization is a kind of creeping conspiracy working against the company’s goals. The root cause is in most cases the disconnect between the real, true goals&rules – and the ones that are stated officially. People very quickly discover false goals and true rules of the game and self-organize accordingly ignoring the official “company mission” or “code of ethics”.

This is why leaders should beware of lying to their teams or hiding a true agenda. It takes an artist at manipulation do pull it off – and in the long run the truth will always surface. It is much better to share the true, compelling goals and rational rules and then allow creative self-organization to occur.

You can also listen to my short talk on the subject.

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