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How Self-Organization Happens

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Key Takeaways

  • Self-organization refers to natural processes of human relating, that are similar at all scales of order in the natural world.
  • The dynamics of self-organization are much more rich and complex than the simple patterns we use to model them.
  • Being able to make sense of these dynamics enables us to build new potentials in teams.
  •  The level of trust rises when we recognize our basic human capacity to collaborate with each other.
  •  Narrative-based applications can visualize some of the subtle patterns that shape a team’s potential for acting in certain ways (and not others) over time.

There isn't one specific pattern that emerges from self-organization. The processes are so deep and fundamental to human interactions, that you cannot enforce any specific hierarchical or non-hierarchical pattern with rules.  Trust between people is an outcome of allowing people to freely self-organize. Complex networks of trust emerge and change as people continuously negotiate their relationships.

Bonnitta Roy, author, teacher, philosopher and insight guide, spoke about self-organization at the Agile People Sweden conference. InfoQ is covering this conference with write-ups, interviews, and articles. Summaries of the sessions can be found in Morning Sessions from Agile People Sweden and Afternoon Sessions from Agile People Sweden.

InfoQ interviewed Roy about how self-organization happens.

InfoQ: Opinions vary about whether self-organization can work. Some believe in it, while others are skeptical or critical about it. Why is this?

Bonnitta Roy: People often think there is just one specific outcome that results from self-organizing processes. For example, people have long argued that hierarchy is the predominant outcome of social processes in nature. But this has proven to be untenable. Nature self-organizes in complex, multi-valent patterns. What we see, depends on the way we investigate the patterns. For example, we used to illustrate the food web in a simple hierarchical pyramid, or linear food chain. Now we use computers to visualize the complex food web that represents energy exchange in ecological systems. It is the same with horses. We used to think that the herd was dominated by the stallion, at the top of a simple hierarchy. Now we understand herd dynamics as much more sophisticated, overlapping and complex.

On the other hand, in the agile community, the notion of self-organization has come to mean “non-hierarchical” or “egalitarian” or “peer-to-peer” outcomes. In fact, it is possible for self-organizing dynamics to create any of these patterns, and other patterns as well. What pattern emerges is dependent upon a host of factors in the environment– conditions, constraints, and circumstances. What pattern emerges is also dependent on key features of the agents themselves -- how they express their autonomy, relationality, and agency. This is as true for animals and plants as it is for people.

People who are critical of self-organization are critical of one or more of the patterns that might emerge. People on both sides of the argument – those who admire hierarchies and those who are allergic to them—want only a single outcome that appeals to them. They want rules that will control the patterns of human relating. At the end of the day, this is not possible. People merely self-organize in unofficial ways despite the official rules that say “we must be a hierarchy” or “we must be egalitarian.” The actual complex processes of human relating cannot be reduced to fit into one or the other of those forms. 

People who believe that self-organization is an important theme in organizational life, understand that self-organization is the source of creative novelty and coherence in complex systems. We believe that understanding self-organization means we can become more conscious in how we face organizational challenges. We believe that by designing with these dynamics, we can design for potentials that are just now emerging in collaborative teams.

InfoQ: You stated that self-organization is deep into the evolutionary code of life. Can you elaborate on this?

Roy: What is deeper than the DNA molecule itself? We know that DNA replicates, but it doesn’t just double itself and split into two. It requires a self-assemblage of many other types of molecules, including transfer RNA, messenger RNA, enzymes that cut the DNA molecule and enzymes that glue it back together, etc. . Furthermore, all these molecules organize around intra-cellular stations called ribosomes, which are themselves composed of molecules that self-assemble. Yet the ribosomes are not capable of executing their operations, without self-assembling with other intra-cellular processes. And cells cannot exist alone, without a self-organized network of other cells and their extracellular environment. This goes on and on at all scales of life. Plants and the soil. The trees and the forest ecosystem. There is no “outside blueprint” for how this happens. The trees don’t know how to be a forest. Still, the forest self-organizes, as does the prairie grass and the coral reefs. According to the scientist-philosopher Stuart Kaufmann, evolution by natural selection is necessary but not sufficient to produce life. Self-organization is a necessary principle for life to happen.

InfoQ: Trust is fundamental for self-organization. How can we build trust?

Roy: I do a workshop on developing trust networks, and it is always a surprise to discover how little we agree on what trust is, and how it operates in our lives. You can try a simple exercise for yourself. Put a dot in the middle of a paper. The dot represents you. Draw a series of concentric circles around the dot. Think of the people you trust most, and put them in the inner circle. You will sense a boundary or threshold where a few people you trust most qualify for this inner trust sanctum, while others feel they belong in the circle further out. When you feel into this notion of a trust network, other people you know from personal or work life will not make it into the inner circles at all. They will belong further out, until the relationships fall into the categories of “casual acquaintance.” You might even have some people black-listed as “not trustworthy at all!”

The question to ask yourself is, what are the threads that are measuring this feeling of trust? Some people think trust is a matter of “predictability”, while other people think it is a matter of “responsibility.” Some people build trust on the bases of intention and purpose, while others see it more about the skills necessary to act reliably in a given situation. People discover that trust is not something that is “on” or “off” – but more like a measure of who is proximate (close to us) and those who are more distal (further out) in our trust network.

Now to answer your question. I wouldn’t say that trust is a pre-requisite for self-organization. I would say that we self-organize our trust network, through continuous participation in complex processes of human relating. Trust is the felt-sense of the pattern that emerges—the implicit pattern of with whom we extend a great deal of trust, and with whom we reserve our trust, to various degrees.

Now imagine an organization as overlapping fields of the trust networks emanating out from all the participants. Certain individuals occupy highly significant nodes of this trust network, and as such, are crucial accelerators of trust across the network. If you really want to visualize how your organization works, you would start identifying all these trust networks.

InfoQ: Are there techniques or practices that you recommend to identify trust networks in organizations and increase the overall trust level?

Roy: Since it is much easier for us to notice when trust is broken, the first step is to help people notice the many ways we rely on the everyday ordinary trust we have in each other. We can help people engage in “evaluative discourse” – conversations that focus on values and what matters most to people. We can help people listen more carefully and receive the other’s perspective as genuine and authentic as our own. In my own work, I have tried to design simple models and heuristics that enable people to explore personal relationships without exposing too much social anxiety all at once. For example, the power formula from my work – i.e., power as the asymmetry between needs/wants and skills/resources—is a great tool for strengthening trust networks.

Useful tools and facilitation by “experts” is not enough. You need facilitators who are trained in practices such as Art of Hosting, or my own Collective Insight practice. Facilitators need to have the capacity of “critical reflexivity” so that they can allow everything that is in the space to show up without judgment, bias or prejudice. We must be mindful of the biological and existential realities of our human condition—the need for both autonomy and relationality, as well as the need for us to collaborate to flourish as human beings. But even this is not enough. We must also acknowledge that the barriers between people have functioned as important scaffolding for people who encounter the structural violence of modern, institutional life. These barriers need to be dismantled skillfully, in order for people to open into larger spheres of trust. This means we need to be vigilant around the structural components of the organization itself. What needs to change there, in order for people to take the next steps toward a deeper trust? All of these come into play in a dynamic and holistic way. Perhaps this is a call for a new kind of career in society.

InfoQ: In your talk, you suggested using narrative-based tools to find out about the state that you are in and then decide what to do. Can you give an example?

Roy: We have developed a tool called TAP- which stands for team action potential. This tool is designed to reveal the implicit action logics that emerge only at a collective level. In this case, we are defining the “state” of the team as how the team is “prepared to act” in a given situation. For example, is your team prepared for innovation based on disruptive tendencies, or more inclined to iterate and refine based on recent successes? Is your team incubating new relationships and views, or diving into experimentation and prototyping?

The idea here is that people are always sensing and interpreting their environment. Prediction markets, for example, are based on the fact that the common-sense of people, when pooled together, make better predictions than experts analyzing data in other ways. Tools like TAP are designed to “get at” the implicit, perhaps unconscious sense making that people are doing, as they feel into and respond to their everyday tensions, challenges, opportunities and successes. Teams often settle into a “steady-state” which ignores or resists change. TAP profiles can detect this. The ideal team will shift into “ready-states” instead, shifting their action-logics according to shifting contexts. This helps teams get second and third-loop feedback and accelerates learning and advances performance at the collective level.

InfoQ: What can organizations do to make self-organization happen?

Roy: Along with a few colleagues, I am designing a suite of practices that help companies navigate their way to self-management. The first step is creating what we call a starting position. We want to make explicit what is already happening “below the radar” so to speak, in organizational life. What are the unofficial scripts that people follow already? Can we identify the significant trust networks and where trust may be fragmented? We want to highlight the values streams that are operating—what sociocracy calls “major drivers” in different domains of work. This gives us a holistic view of the organization as a starting position.

The second step then is to inquire, through collective engagement: where do we go from here? In this stage, we help build capacity for teams to be more strategically savvy by teaching them the four languages of change. In this way, frontline teams begin to connect their work with the larger strategic wholes of the organization and start to engage top tier leadership from multiple perspectives – a significant advantage in today’s complex world.

InfoQ: If InfoQ readers want to learn more about self-organization, where can they go?

Roy: If readers want to learn more about the theory of self-organization, I recommend Stuart Kaufmann’s book At Home in the Universe, the subtitle of which is The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity. People interested in complex processes of human relating should read Ralph Stacey’s book Strategic Management and Organizational Dynamics. People interested in what might happen if a large company actually adopted a radical approach to self-organization should read Ricardo Semler’s Maverick, or google many of his videos. This is a pretty big commitment!

I want to help people understand these ideas in a format that is simple and direct. Therefore, I am currently writing two books: The OPO Playbook and Our Future at Work. For starters, you can read some of my work on Medium at Our Future at Work.

About the Interviewee

Bonnitta Roy is founding member of APP Associates, International -- a network of professionals practicing open participation in the workplace so people can flourish and organizations can thrive.

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