There is an old Zen saying, “Sitting quietly, doing nothing, Spring comes, and grass grows by itself.” It is a beautiful reminder of the number of things in this world that happen naturally.

Nature depends on self-organization. Growing grass is a self-organizing phenomenon. In nature, the cycle of seasons happens, trees grow, animals find food, cooperative partnerships are developed between species in an ecosystem, and all this activity is done without the direction of humans! We don’t need Congress to pass a law or a president to sign an executive order to make rivers flow.

All around us, nature is self-organizing to move, evolve, change, and nourish itself.

 

If Nature Can Self-Organize, Can Organizations Do This, Too?

Why do we think our organizations and human beings need direction and control to accomplish anything? On an individual level, our bodies are filled with systems that self-organize. Our lymphatic, digestive, respiratory, nervous, and circulatory systems all self-organize. We don’t use up conscious brain space to direct all these systems. These systems figure out what needs to happen and make it so.

If our bodies can self-organize, why can’t we self-organize at work? Why is it so difficult to believe that our staff members can initiate and organize their own work to serve the larger purpose of the organization? Why do we structure and staff our organizations in a way that reinforces command and control instead of creating environments – like in nature – that are designed for self-organization?

I believe there are pockets in most of our organizations that have learned to unleash the talent of their staff members, so they work together in a synergistic way to create excellent results. They work together differently, they are led differently, and they produce differently.

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What Would Leadership Look Like if it Depended on Self-Organization?

High performing teams can help us answer this question. Many of us have had the privilege of working on a wonderful team, and if not, we probably know someone who has. 

The high-performance teams I have worked on or led are filled with people who are clear about the mission or the organization. The individual team members are competent and work to continue learning to become even better. Team members are treated with respect and the unique talents of team members are utilized and optimized. They learn to trust each other and appreciate the distinct roles and responsibilities they share. If the leader of this kind of team was out on extended sick leave, the team and its performance would continue, and team members would fill the gaps the team leader’s absence would create.

These teams are fun places to work, and they are motivated by the satisfaction embedded in their accomplishments and contributions. Team members display emotional intelligence. They work through tensions and conflicts without taking things personally or amplifying drama in the workplace. This is what self-organization looks like a team. And it gives us a framework for how it could look in an organization.

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What if We Depended on Self-Organization in Our Organizations?

Here are some of the benefits an organization would gain if they could shift their leadership, organizational structure, assumptions, and processes in a way that would support self-organization:

  1. They would use fewer resources for management and oversight. When we have staff members who can initiate and organize their own work, do it in cooperation with others, and align their work with the higher purpose of the organization, we wouldn’t need to spend time, money, or attention on supervision. Supervision and management would shift to coaching and development and help people see the meaning of their work and how it contributes to the larger success of the organization. This shift builds capacity for self-organization.
  2. It would be more satisfying for the employees to have input in decisions that affected them and allow them to help create solutions to problems they experience in the workplace.
  3. There would be less time wasted on drama and pointing fingers. The focus is on achieving the organization’s purpose – not on blaming others to avoid individual accountability.
  4. Processes and structures would be more efficient and less cumbersome because we wouldn’t need them for control or accountability purposes. Processes and structures would be designed for effectiveness and efficiency, not as a vehicle to have control over others in the organization.

 

What Would We Need to Let Go to Have Workplaces Based on Self-Organization?

To reap these benefits, we also need to let go of these behaviors in our organizations:

  • Our need to control others – because it hinders the development of self-organization
  • Rewarding blind obedience and “yes people” because they depend on direction from others – they can’t self-organize
  • Loyalty to an individual leader instead of the larger mission or the business; Self-organization requires alignment with higher purpose, not individual loyalty
  • Our assumption that higher levels of compensation flow to the people who are directing and controlling others instead of assuming that many people contribute to the success of the company

 

Dr. Kathleen E. Allen writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based in lessons from nature and living systems. She is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (available for purchase September 4, 2018) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. You can sign up for her blog on her website: www.kathleenallen.net