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Self-Organizing Organizations (For Real)

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Everyone and their grandmother in the Agile world raves about self-organizing teams and the value of self-organization. Yet very few are willing to push self-organization to the next step: to actually work without managers / coordinators / benevolent seniors, in short, without anyone (including you) telling their mate (including yourself) what they must do. There are reasons for this: self-organization is no picnic, it doesn’t work, and everyone knows it. We at /ut7 didn’t know better, and we took nothing for granted. So we’ve tried self-organizing. For real. And we’ve learned some lessons on our way about self-organization, and life.

It all started in July 2011 when we, the workers of /ut7, bought back our company and transformed it into a co-operative business. Or maybe it started earlier, in 2010 when some of us proclaimed the company under Permanent State of Open Space. Or maybe even earlier, when one by one, we heard about this company hiring agilists who'd like to apply what they knew and believed in at company-level. So much for certainties: in self-organized structures you never really know when and where things start.

/ut7 is a collective of seasoned agilists with a solid expertise in software programming, product definition, team dynamics and self-organization. Our clients invite us to come back because they love how we constantly deliver working software on time, no matter how desperate the case is. Our students return to our trainings because they understand we're fully dedicated to raise the bar of expectations when it comes to defining what a professional coder is. Our friends visit us and hang around because we open our space to them for free. And perhaps because we're nice people. Or because there's always beer in the fridge.

Our company fully belongs to the workers. They may decide for the future of the company, they can enjoy a substantial part of the benefits generated by their work, but they can't speculate on the value of the company itself and make profit by selling their share.

/ut7 is one of the rare companies in IT that consistently operates under principles of self-organization. But what is self-organization, at company level? Basically, it means that the company organizes itself according to the free will of each individual in the company, all of them freely choosing to co-operate for achieving some goals. Let's take a closer look at this.

The Law of two feet

Our core interpretation of self-organization is the state in which you feel while being in an Open Space Conference. In 2009, three of us were seasoned Open Space Conference organizers; some others had experienced at least one Open Space Conference, so it became an easy point of reference. And if we wanted to feel like in an Open Space, why not use that same framework in our workplace?

All meetings and activities in general (including doing administrative tasks and client work) are public and publicized. Anyone may attend and participate, or act as an observer. No activity or meeting is mandatory. While there is value to having something done, we find it more valuable to receive signals that nobody is motivated to do something, because it tells us we shouldn't pursue this path. This of course could mean that some critical, not-so-gratifying tasks may remain undone and hurt us in the long-term. On the other hand, it helps us to check frequently whether we as a group still want to make the company function or not. As long as we're here, it means we're still committed as a group.

To ensure that the company may keep honoring its various commitments to its clients, its partners and the French regulations, we work in pairs. Whenever we can, we rotate the pairs on regular basis, to keep a fresh eye on the context and to accommodate individual schedules. We do this both for administrative tasks and clients' work.

Once a week we hold a formal Open Space, with opening, marketplace scheduling and closing. We use it to discuss what needs to be discussed prior to making an informed decision and to exchange information. We also use it to share whatever drives our passion at the moment, usually in the form of production activities such as programming, writing articles or songs, cleaning up or playing games of all kinds, some serious, some not. Every now and then, we invite people from outside to participate to the Open Space, usually for half a day so that we still have time to discuss private matters.

We've put "The Law Of Two Feet" (or, as some of us say, Bipodocracy) at the core of our governance scheme. That is, if you're where you are, doing what you're doing, this means you're either learning something or contributing to the group.

How do we make sure no one is slacking off? The short answer is we don't. (The longer, more subtle answer is based on cultivating trust, communication and healthy expectations about others.) We trust everyone to do their best and to act for the good of the company. When someone does less than others, we say "from each according to his abilities." This is frustrating at times. This can be discouraging to the point that some may prefer to leave the group rather than accepting to do more while earning the same. When you are able to deal with it, though, you increasingly find happiness in what you do, regardless of what others earn (or don't).

You're not the boss of me

Our company has no manager. Long-term orientations are decided collectively, unanimously. As long as there's no consensus, we keep on discussing the options. Short-term decisions are handled under the principle that those who do, get to decide: what they'll do, how they'll do it, when, for how long and for how much. Others in the company, those who don't do a specific thing, might wish for other methods, higher production rates or better outcomes. They might express their frustration, bring up an alternative point of view, but in no way can anyone tell another what they have to do. The only way to (maybe) change the course of action is to participate in the doing of the task.

Which brings a tough challenge: how do you get stuff, any stuff done, when you are constantly torn between doing what you feel is the most important task at hand and fixing all the wrongs you see the others doing? How do you decide to try out something new, when a failure could financially impact the company? How do you make choices, when nobody is there to tell you what to do?

We believe at  /ut7 that everyone is equipped to make an informed decision about their work priorities since they're aware of the financial situation of the company. We have an open accounting books policy. Everyone at /ut7 can check to the cent what amounts we've collectively earned and spent, and consult a conservative estimation of future expenses and incomes. This, of course, includes salaries. Everyone is then free to derive from these numbers whatever metrics they see fit and act accordingly. The sole indicator that's been consistently measured and publicized over the last two years is the time we have left before money runs out, should we not sign any new contract.

And now you say: There is no coordinated action? No common goal? No shared vision? Just people acting as they see fit according to their own interpretation of how financially healthy the company is?

And you're right. We've given up with shared vision and common goals as we feel that they are largely over-rated. Shared vision is a cool thing to have, of course, as it speeds everything up big time. But developing a self-organizing group with shared vision exercises is going to hurt everyone. We know, we've tried it many times in many ways. It's easy to come to a shared vision in an environment where some boss tells you what to do or tells you where to go in the form of a long-term goal. However, when the sky is the limit, things get tougher. You need to go personal, to talk about what deeply matters to you and to accept what deeply matters to others. This is scary. You'll have to share your vulnerabilities and trust the other won't use them against you. This doesn't happen with the click of a switch. You have to practice this everyday until the fear of getting hurt isn't an obstacle anymore. Rushing to a shared vision state in the group will only lead to platitudes such as "we want to do great things that our clients will love and be glad to buy," and will lower everyone's morale.

Our biggest surprise was to realize that a self-organized company can actually function without a shared vision. As long as there's room for everyone to go where their two feet lead them, and as long as the company keeps existing, what else do you need? So, instead of focusing on shared vision, we've switched our attention to making sure everyone was getting positive outcomes from whatever was being done, and to solve situations where one suffers from negative outcomes. This is a time-consuming practice but it has proved itself to be much more efficient than setting a long-term goal that we would never quite manage to define.

This is still a risky path, though. In times of financial crisis, it's tempting to look for individual financial contributions, compare "personal rentabilities" and despise those who aren't putting in "enough effort." We've been there, and it can get ugly. The main problem is that it's not easy to measure the actual financial contribution of an individual. And while solidarity is cool to talk about, it's hard to live by. There's no easy answer to this. Education, patience and communication help. Equal wages helps. Doing things in pairs and switching pairs helps too. And sometimes it's still not helpful enough and you have to let go, and welcome someone else's frustration and do the best with it. Just as in life.

Find your own path

Self-organizing means believing there are no preconceived solutions on how to get and remain self-organized. Every self-organizing structure will have to come up with their own practices, adapted to their context and (most) possibly irrelevant to others. This comes as no surprise, when you think about it. If there were such thing as "the" way to self-organization teams wouldn't be self-organizing anymore, they'd merely follow the voice or the writings of enlightened gurus.

We've grown from three to thirteen employees in about a year, to shrink back to four in about two years. Try to run a self-organizing company with thirteen people, and you'll see what kind of mess you get into. Self-organization is incredibly hard. Partly because when you disagree with someone, no manager will jump in and tell how to settle the disagreement. It is tempting to "stay put in his or her corner and take no notice of the others." Still, all together, you have to run the company and while you may easily bypass minor differences of opinion, it is much harder to ignore what the others do when you believe it jeopardizes the company's future. Ironically enough, chances are high the others think the same about you. "Hell is the other people." You can't just ignore the others, when what they do makes you cringe. You can't either force them to stop.

Some felt they didn't get enough room to explore their own endeavors. They expressed their concern of not feeling represented in the orientations the company was taking. This is something tricky: you do want to accommodate everyone's passion, and it's hard to do so and not lose your own stamina. In the end, we've noticed that the people who weren't feeling represented were also the ones who had chosen to spend much of their time at clients' workplace or doing work from home. This had unbalanced the relationship between a core of workers, who was actively maintaining contact and communication, and others who were more peripheral to this core. We realized that this was a self-re-enforcing loop, which made it even harder to get back in touch with those who weren't feeling heard. Since then, we make sure that we allocate at least a day a week for face-to-face communication.

And thus, some of us have stayed, believing they could overcome frustrations, no matter what. And it looks like we're actually getting somewhere. The Law of Two Feet helps. Open Space is just a start, though. The four of us have a practical experience in coaching practices and therapeutic tools, mostly from the Virginia Satir's system. It helps us to face with difficult conversations with courage. One format we use weekly is Temperature Reading. It not only helps to express what matters to you, be they appreciations, angers and worries, puzzles, new facts and rumors, or hopes and wishes, but also to hear others express vibrantly what dearly matters to them, and to be in touch with your own liveliness in reflection.

Of course, this isn't as rosy as it may seem. Finding out collectively what you're good at, what you want to do, and how you're going to do it takes a significant portion of your time and soon money runs short. About a year ago, we've filed for the French equivalent of Chapter 11 of Bankruptcy Code. That was six months after buying the company back. We thought we had gotten to self-organization, but we'd mostly run out of money.

What is the point of putting so much effort in self-organizing, then? To some, to us at least, it is about living a work life more in accordance with your values such as freedom, responsibility, solidarity and self-improvement. When you're this kind of person, finding yourself a healthy place in the vast grimness of the actual work milieu, finding people who understand you, whom you trust and among whom you can develop your self, can become an end in itself. A healthy work environment, mutual help, the permission to experiment and maybe fail may become the main outcomes you want the company to produce. Problem is, by doing so you allocate time, money and energy to things the rest of the economic systems doesn't value much. Even if you're selling great products, it's just a matter of time before some other company copies you and does the same with a "better" optimization of their resources and becomes a tough competitor. It may feel warm inside, but it's a cold world out there.

Conclusion: you leap and the net appears

It's been a year since we've filed for bankruptcy and we're still there. Our clients have all supported us while fully knowing our situation. New ones have even come to us. Are we eventually doing better? It's always hard to figure out if this is success, finally, or just a strike of luck that will pass, or a miserable tragedy we fail to see for what it is. You go on the self-organization path and everyone tells you how it will never work, and who knows, they could even be right. But life doesn't work either, it always fails and still, it doesn't prevent one to try and do one's best. So you try and do your best at setting up a self-organizing company. And you never know if you've succeeded enough to tell others that it can actually work.

Eventually, self-organization stops being a goal you want to reach, and turns into the way you work and live. It's only one way of living among many others, but you know deep inside that this one fits you well. You practice it again and again, and it stops being practice. It's still less-than-perfect, but you've stopped striving for perfection. You find out you can live with the mess, the uncertainty and the frustrations.

And then something amazing happens. You realize that you manage to work out problems in the company with others, that you achieve goals you believed were beyond your reach. That you're getting more confident about your abilities and your self-worth. That you face tough decisions with courage and honesty. That you actually like waking up in the morning to go to work. That not only your work, but also your whole life has a meaning. That you're doing something that matters to you, and to a group of now intimate friends who support your growth. Fears, doubts, uncertainties are still there everyday but they're so familiar now that you don't let them prevent you from doing your best. You're proud of yourself, and of each one in the group.

And you start thinking. If this is something you could do with a small group, you the normal guy, with limited abilities, limited resources and a fair share of traumas, maybe others could do it, too. Working out their own solutions to their current problems, talking about their victories, about their doubts, about what it means to them to be human and alive. So you write about your experience, hoping it'll inspire others to start their own. And this, dear reader, is where the rest of the story begins, waiting to be written.

About the Author

Emmanuel Gaillot works as a team coach, (extreme) programmer, facilitator, trainer and systems jiggler. For the last 10 years he has been helping software makers to be better at, prouder of, and happier about the work they produce. A regular speaker at many conferences on Agility, Emmanuel also co-organizes the annual Agile Open France conference. He is one of the founders (and still assiduous member) of the Coding Dojo in Paris. Emmanuel works in Paris at /ut7, co-operative business he learns to hack with his fellow colleagues. He currently focuses his energy and passion on learning and teaching exotic languages, on shaping self-organizing structures and setting up co-learning spaces.

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