The Spectre of Self-Organisation

A spectre is haunting the VUCA world — the spectre of self-organisation. Companies are led by regular employees, management tasks are distributed, decision-making authorities decentralized.
Some experience this situation as bad dream. They expect radical democracy, anarchy, chaos. Others see self-organisation as friendly ghost. They expect better results due to more motivation and higher employee as well as customer satisfaction. Not a bad deal, if you ask us.

But what is it actually that haunts more and more enterprises? What kind of spirits do you cite when people start to self-organise? And why is it likely that these spirits will ignore your commands?
Building on the so-called CDE Model by sociologist Glenda Eoyang, self-organisation is easy to understand. After all, only four components are needed:

1. A clear-cut mission, focusing on customers and stakeholders and translated into specific goals (see red elements in Figure 1).

2. Containing boundaries to keep your enterprise on track. Management (see yellow circle with orange border) is responsible to create these boundaries in a way that encourages a team of subject matter experts (yellow circles, triangles, squares) to do the best job they can. This encompasses decision-making policies, infrastructure, responsibilities, information or feedback loops.

3. Differences in regard with knowledge, experience, education or cultural background.
4. Exchange within the team as well as with customers and stakeholders.

From a systemic point of view, self-organisation is happening all the time. It is not the exception but the rule of how social order is accomplished. The question remains, however, whether or not a company supports or hinders this natural way. In recent years autonomy has been encouraged in many areas, especially through Agile methods. Unfortunately, Scrum, Kanban, Design Thinking and the like are often limited to single teams or special departments.

The more than 40 enterprises Sigi is inquiring in his new book show that there is a powerful alternative. The range of examples involves pioneers such as Gore or Semco, trendsetters such as tomato producer Morning Star or music streamer Spotify and newcomers such as VOIP experts sipgate or the software testing gurus of Computest. Across various industries, countries and contexts these enterprises build on a astonishingly similar set of principles and practices. From customer first to transparent work flow management, from fast feedback loops to distributed decision-making, from distributed management responsibilities to lean organisational structures.

All in all these enterprises show that self-organisation is no rocket science. As long as experts are patronized, smart people bossed around by bureaucratic guidelines and subordinates commanded and controlled by superiors, the evil spirits will continue to dominate though.

To make room for the good ones we need a different understanding of leadership. What kind of management is favoured by self-organising experts such as Dutch software developers Incentro, American motorcycle gurus Harley-Davidson or Swedish Handelsbanken? Where do practitioners from Swiss Federal Railways, German online platform AutoScout24 or Austrian relay specialist Tele Haase focus on in order to drive their business in a different way? Which boundaries do they set to foster exceptional work processes as well as results? 

Learn more about the answers from Sigi´s landmark book. Get a sample for free, dive into Part II: Scaling Self-Organisation and look forward to more within the next couple of weeks.