As part of a stimulating conversation on self-organization in Stephen Billing’s blog, I added a few more thoughts on the topic as viewed from an informal coalitions perspective. As with my previous post, the intention is to note these comments 'for completeness' on this ‘home’ blog, as well as - perhaps - exposing this issue to other readers.
The particular focus here is on the points I made in response to John Tropea’s interesting vision of what he calls a “role-based” organization. In this, individuals would have greater discretion to organize their own roles and relationships to suit their particular talents and interests. However, implicit in this is the widely-held view that self-organization happens (or doesn’t) as a result of deliberate choice – either by management design or as the result of a ‘grass roots’ initiative. And it was the felt need to challenge this general perspective that prompted me to add my ‘two pennyworth’ to the discussion.
Self-organization is not the same thing as self-management
When I was a manager in industry, I had similar aspirations to those set out above (but more of that later). Typically, these are rooted in a belief that everyone has strengths that are currently under-utilized – and an untapped desire to apply them. The purpose of leadership then becomes one of helping to unlock these talents and make them productive. And this means fostering conditions in which people have scope for greater self-management of their work.
Despite retaining these beliefs, I would not equate this approach with the idea of “self-organization” in the sense that I now talk about it.
To help explain my thinking on this, I find it useful to distinguish between what I see as three complementary but distinct aspects of organizational change and performance. These are organizational dynamics, organization design and organization development.
For me, the term “self-organization” refers to a fundamental dynamic of organizations. It is an inevitable property of the complex social process of people in interaction. Ralph Stacey and his colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire refer to this as a “complex responsive process”, to emphasize the pivotal role that ‘talk’ (or “communicative interaction”, as they more precisely call it) has on organizational outcomes. This is echoed in my own view of organizations as dynamic networks of self-organizing conversations, and the notion of informal coalitions that flows from it.
So “self-organization” is not something that is within the gift of managers to decide upon. It is at play just as surely in an organization ruled by the proverbial ‘iron fist’ as in one that has all the attributes of empowered self-management. However, the critical thing to emphasize here is that it is the conversational interactions that are self-organizing. And it is through the self-organizing interplay of these ‘local’ conversations across the organization and beyond that ‘global’ outcomes emerge.
As regards organization design, I see its primary purpose as one of shaping and aligning the various elements of the organization so that it is best placed to achieve its purpose and ethos (at least as judged by the principles that inform the design). Critical to this, therefore, is a view of organizations as purposive, goal-oriented ‘enterprises’ – whether these are commercial of not-for-profit.
As part of the design process to achieve this, decisions will be made on structural aspects of organization, as well as on related processes, systems and procedures. And, whether by accident or design, these will both enable and constrain the ways in which people are supposed to work together formally. So the outcome might be one which facilitates greater self-management; or else inhibits (or even prohibits) it, in favour of greater centralized control.
This brings me finally to the third of out 'ODs', organization development. In its 'pure' form, this is intended to provide a comprehensive approach to planning changes in behaviour in organizations, to achieve greater organizational effectiveness. It is heavily steeped in humanistic, people-based values and recognizes the impact of social, psychological and emotional aspects of organization on performance outcomes. As such, it embraces a philosophy of management rooted in a positive view of the value of greater employee involvement and self-management.
In essence, then, managers who embrace this perspective maintain high expectations of people’s willingness and ability to contribute and adopt leadership practices designed to foster mutual trust and enable greater self-regulation.
Unlocking organizational talent
I mentioned earlier that, during my time as an in-house manager, I practised this philosophy myself and advocated it widely. Indeed, I developed a sense-making framework to facilitate greater 'empowerment' along these lines, and subsequently developed it further.
In essence, at its centre is placed an individual’s core strengths or distinctive competence, on which their contribution to the organization – and personal growth - will be built. The framework then branches out in four complementary directions. These describe, in turn, the attributes of self-sufficiency, self-direction, self-control, and collaboration.
This broadly accords, I believe, with the talent-based approach to role development mentioned earlier – without, perhaps, taking the risk that empowered self-management will lead to abdication of leadership responsibility. As Larry Hirshhorn argues in his HBR 2002 article (subscription only), “New Boundaries of the ‘Boundaryless’ Company”, people still have a psychological need for what he calls authority, task, political and identity boundaries.
I argue similarly in my Unlocking Organizational Talent framework that there is a need for “boundary management”. As individuals develop along the four dimensions, a key focus for the manager/team leader is simultaneously to enable and constrain performance by seeking to ‘manage’ the boundaries within which team members are operating. The aim of this is to encourage, assist and enable them increasingly to ‘push the boundaries out’ as they grow in competence and confidence. At the same time, it seeks to align this growth to the shifting needs of the business environment within which they are operating.
To sum up, then, I see self-organization as a dynamic of all organizations, regardless of how these might be designed and managed from a formal standpoint. Outcomes emerge from this process - both locally and globally.
Emergence locally takes the form of jointly improvised ways of thinking and acting. And globally it can be seen in such things as:
- the idealized designs of the formal organization
- the informal coalescing of people around particular agendas
- the ‘patterning’ of taken-for-granted assumptions about the organization, which creates a generalized tendency for people to think and act in familiar ways.
Unlike the choice that managers have as to whether or not they should embark on a new organization design project or invest in organization development initiatives, the socially complex dynamics of organization are a given. These cannot be wished away or dealt with mechanically. All that leaders (or anyone else) can do is to act with insight and intention in relation to what they see happening around them. Even then, they can’t be sure what the result of this will be. Nobody can.
However well conceived the formal organization design and development activities might be, the ways in which these are taken up will themselves be subject to the underlying organizational dynamics. Particular outcomes can't be guaranteed. At the same time, these formal trappings of organization will inevitably affect the precise nature of outcomes that emerge through the ongoing conversational process.
In conclusion, I find it unhelpful and misleading to refer to formally empowered organizational designs and management processes as being “self-organizing”. Instead, the terms “self-managing” and/or “self-regulating” provide better descriptions of these formal, planned and structured elements of organizational strategy and practice.