The fourteen conditions that make self-organization work
Self-organization is not a cure for all organizations. But applied in the right setting it can be effective. This may sound logical to anyone with a basic knowledge of organizations. Still I encounter many organizational fundamentalists who believe self-organization is the holy grail, no matter what, or who claim the opposite: that it is never going to work. Both types of fundamentalists seem oblivious to the only law in business that has proven true over and over again: there is no one best way of organizing. The question is not whether self-organization is good or bad. The question is: when to self-organize and when not to self-organize?
On average, self-organization is becoming more useful in today’s economy and, on average, information technology makes it much easier to implement self-organization. The key words in the previous sentence are ‘on average’. Averages are the most used, yet least understood statistic. The variation around averages can be high, making it impossible to draw conclusions based on averages only. Therefore my belief that on average self-organization is increasingly useful and possible, is completely useless as a guideline for designing an individual organization. Each individual organization will have to determine whether it is ready for self-organization or not. Depending on the organization, the outcome may be completely different.
So when does it fit? Below I list fourteen criteria for self-organization to work. This list is drawn from my last book How to Survive the Organizational Revolution?, co-authored with Pieter Koene and Martijn Ars (https://amzn.to/2OuHL67). More information can be found in the book, but here are our headlines:
1. Does your organization have a clear vision that is internalized by people working in the organization? The better internalized a vision is, the less you need managers to coordinate activities.
2. Are tasks clearly defined and accompanied by an adequate mandate? Without clear tasks it is difficult for team members to organize their own work.
3. Do individuals have access to information that helps them to make decisions? A key element: if you require people to make their own decisions, they need to have access to information that helps them make those decisions.
4. Do they have the tools and knowledge to interpret that information? See the previous point. Having the right information is useless if you don’t know what to do with it.
5. Are there common building blocks in the organization that ensure alignment? Common building blocks may be processes everybody has to follow, training to standardize skill sets or administrative procedures that have to be used. They ensure consistency.
6. Are the errors that people in your organization make non-fatal? If an individual error can be fatal, you do not want self-organization. In that case you want oversight or fixed procedures or a combination of those.
7. Can existing managerial work be allocated to teams? Managerial work does not disappear. Planning needs to be done, budgeting has to be taken care of, quality control assured and people still need to get hired and fired. Are your teams ready to take this on?
8. Does team behaviour support self-organization? Team members need to be able to give feedback to each other and to resolve their own conflicts, to name but two elements.
9. Is knowledge-sharing across teams safeguarded? A downside of self-organization may be that knowledge is not shared across teams. Look for solutions for that problem, like building an internal social network tool.
10. Is there low interdependence between teams? When teams depend on the performance of other teams, they need to coordinate with those other teams. The less cross-team coordination, the easier it is to self-organize.
11. Is there high interdependence within teams? There is no need for teams when people do not depend each other.
12. Is feedback organized on a team level? If feedback is only given individually or on a department level, teams will miss out on information necessary for them to adapt their way of working.
13. Do managers trust teams to solve their own problems? Managers have to give teams space to learn and may need to sit idle while they are desperate to intervene. But having trust in the teams to work out solutions for themselves is the best option to get self-organization going.
14. Do people want it? No preconditions, process or brilliant IT system can compensate for a lack of motivation of people to work along the lines of self-organization.
Some organizations may meet all these criteria, but it is likely that many organizations will not. Especially organizations with a long history behind them, may find it difficult to implement self-organization. Start-ups may find it easier. Self-organization is not a quick fix for organizational problems and it requires thorough analysis to make it work. The fourteen points may provide you with a first guide to make that analysis. They also provide an antidote to the organizational fundamentalists who make extreme claims for or against self-organization. As always: it is not a black or white issue, but it depends on the circumstances.
Is this list complete? Or are some points more important than others? Let me know what you think.