I’ve noticed that my own self-organizing group members always ask the best, and most difficult, questions—questions that I am afraid to fully look at on my own, let alone answer. Here’s a great one. Thank you Neil!!
Sent: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 8:02 AM
Subject: re: article
When I started [the article The Foundational Metaphors and Theories of Relationship-Centered Administration, 2004, Suchman] a few weeks ago, I quit because it was so dense. However, I seem to be flowing through this time and find it quite interesting and even inspiring. I think its themes probably overlap a lot with self-organizing groups. I thought of you with the following quote:
If you decide to read it, let me know what you think. Also, have you seen “evil” self organizing groups?
Enjoy your day
Sent: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 5:46 PM
Subject: RE: article
Hi Neil, you rock star. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my perspective. Whether you mean to or not, both you and Doug are pushing me toward verbalizing a theory of self-organizing groups, as the flip side to documenting the experiences of self-organizing groups that is my true joy. Love you guys. Thought I was decades away from being ready to do this!
Regarding the Suchman, 2004 article, I’d say that my experience of self-organizing groups sounds more like this paragraph than anything else in it:
“And so we have arrived at the very essence of Relationship Centered Administration. It is about how we show up and what we bring to each moment: it is very personal. It is about openness and humility: understanding how much we depend upon the serendipity of self-organizing process that is perpetually outside our control. It is about paradox: to get the best outcomes, we have to forget about outcomes and focus instead on the quality of relational process. It is about expectations: transforming individuals and organizations by focusing attention on their best qualities, not their worst. The ultimate message of this chapter is just this: organizational change begins and ends with changing ourselves, how we think and act, what we pay attention to, what we expect of each other, and how we talk and relate to each other in every moment of every day. Gandhi said it best: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
This sentence in particular—organizational change begins and ends with changing ourselves, how we think and act, what we pay attention to, what we expect of each other, and how we talk and relate to each other in every moment of every day—sounds like my own writing. Always nice to find others doing similar work under different terminology and for different people! Go us! Thanks for sharing it with me.
Regarding this snippet you highlighted:
I’m not a physicist, chemist, complex systems scientist, biologist, or any of the other amazing folks you’ll find working to define the abstract terms (such as “complexity,” “self-organization,” or “self-organizing patterns”) mentioned in this snippet. I am a self-organizing groups researcher/determined learner. I document the experiences of self-organizing groups. In large part, I do this to ensure that I myself get to live and work as part of self-organizing groups the rest of my life.
This author is in very good company if he believes that self-organizing groups can be evil (is that what’s being said here?). At this point I think Doug would agree that the adjective “virtuous” or “good” should be added before “self-organizing groups” when I write and speak about the groups I study and am part of. So, I suspect, would several more of my heroes, including local legend Bill Grace. Someone I suspect may lean a little more toward my perspective is Peter Block. Another is Meg Wheatley. If you’re interested, I can also forward you the draft e-Book Doug and I are writing, as it’s decided that it’s documenting an emerging self-organizing groups theory whether I want it to or not.
I’m exhausted today. We adopted one 12-week-old kitten and one 8-week-old kitten this weekend. They woke me up playing every hour on the hour last night. At 3 a.m., they collectively dive-bombed my head from a several-feet height and then attempted to nurse on my face. This was after the single-kitty approach to this same idea didn’t work the previous 4 hours in a row. Today, the younger one is throwing up regularly as he adjusts to new food, so I fear I may be off to the vet tomorrow if he can’t keep food down. Poor little guy. I’ll take a shot at explaining my perspective on self-org groups, but I’m working at about 10% energy/brain power today. Mostly what I’m thinking about today is my family friend who is raising two sets of twins. I’m convinced she must be surviving on some combination of health food, B-12 shots, and cocaine! But I digress.
When I started on my journey studying self-organizing groups, my goal was to learn enough that I could spend the rest of my life working this way. My experience working in a group at work was extraordinary, personally transformative, rewarding, fun (most days), and also by far the most difficult thing I’d ever done. Our division also evolved significantly as a result, and we got to watch ideas spread and blossom as self-organizing groups formed around us and fostered collective working far beyond what we’d imagined. We gained the ability to move within the organization as one: to know each other’s minds well enough that we could take individual actions that were either in sync from the start or that we could make appear to be in sync the moment we came together. With the confidence and passion this group gave me, I quit my job to pursue study of these groups full time, confident that the division I now loved was being left in 300+ amazing hands.
I first recognized what we were when I saw this graphic (in the book Small Groups as Complex Systems by Arrow, McGrath, and Berdahl, 2000). In it, planned means built by designers and emergent means appearing to arise spontaneously. External means created from outside the group itself and internal means created from within the group itself.
I recognized us as a self-organizing group, because the group had moved me from thinking:
- Mid 2004: “I’m fed up and exhausted working the way this division works. I hate it here. I should quit.” (concocted group) to
- Early 2005: “I’m creating an amazing group that’s going to change the whole division!” (founded group) to
- Early 2006: “I can’t believe how extraordinarily lucky I am to be part of this group and this division. I am utterly surrounded by amazing people and groups. What our group has been talking about and planning wasn’t even what mattered most! What matters most is that we are a diverse group of people, working across long-held division boundaries, and demonstrating that the division is capable of actually doing remarkable cross-boundary work despite our many flaws. It’s not what we’re saying that matters most. It’s not us as individuals. It’s who we are as a group!”
So I began looking for other groups that identified themselves as “more emergent than planned” and “more internally created than externally created.” I began with groups within organizations: teachers in a high school, employees in a tech company, several doctoral student groups and professor/student groups in higher education, for example. Changed, I then found consultant groups and other cross-organization groups to study. Changed, I then found groups outside of traditional organizations altogether, such as flash mobs. Changed, I began noticing and studying other self-organizing groups I was part of, such as my husband and I, my sister and I, my husband and best friend and I together, etc. Changed, I found large friendship groups to study. Changed, next up I’ll be studying an artist group and a church that fosters self-organizing groups as a regular practice—both even farther outside my comfort zones than I’ve gone before (plus several more flash mobs, because they’re just so much fun I can’t stay away).
I study groups I am part of and groups recommended or revealed to me by the groups I study. I only study groups connected to the groups I study and am part of. It’s only as the groups I’m studying and part of evolve (and I evolve) that we become capable of recognizing the next groups to study. There is ample evidence here that we draw only “good” or “virtuous” groups to us, and if that’s your perspective on me and my work that’s fine with me! My own belief based on my experience is that every new self-org group changes me and allows me to see even more people and groups as “good” or “virtuous” and as part of myself. I believe there will come a day when these groups so change me that I become capable of noticing the good and virtuous in all people and groups from the moment I show up through whatever happens to the moment I leave. Some days, that’s already happened. Other days, I feel eons away. For example, last week I yelled at my dad (who was trying to help), my husband (who was trying to help), and at the wife (who was trying to help) of a plumber when the plumber failed to show up as expected, and without a plan, for the second time. Clearly I still have a very LONG way to go.
This past winter, as I hit group #30, I could no longer ignore the most clear theme that emerged from across all the groups. Namely, that in these groups, people are surprised and delighted by what they become and do together. Same goes for the people close enough to them to see what they’re doing and consider themselves part of it at some point. Those who aren’t typically can’t see them as a group at all. I ignored this theme for a long time, because it’s a big deal. As an individual, it’s unbelievably scary to say this out loud. My definition for these groups appears to fly in the face of what many of my planet’s experts, including many of my own personal heroes, experience and believe. But I say it anyway. I can today, because I don’t only see myself as an individual anymore. I see my “self” as all the self-organizing groups I study and am part of. This is their experience, and mine, and I’m going to honor it. The groups themselves give me the chutzpah to stand by what I see! (not to mention the ability to use the word chutzpah, because one of my own groups right now is mostly Jewish, even though I’m not).
So, in January, I evolved my definition of self-organizing groups into: a self-organizing group is a collective whose members are surprised and delighted by what they become and do together. This means I can no longer hide what I experience and see in these groups. For me, the “self” in self-organizing group means the group self. It means:
- Group-level self-awareness as demonstrated by group members who can finish each other’s thoughts, share themselves without fear, naturally reflect together, tease each other, pull each other outside their comfort zones until they recognize new strengths in themselves that they could only see in the others before, and learn together faster than they could on their own.
- Members so recognizing the value the group brings to themselves and those who matter most to them that they regularly reflect on and change their individual ideas and behavior. It means people who happily get together and will do so even when it means in the rain outside, late at night, during 15-minute breaks, on weekends, or driving and busing and walking and ferrying themselves great distances, if needed, to spend time together.
- Groups that find themselves creating win-win-win-win-win-win situations and coming up with ideas unimaginable to every individual within them until they started working closely.
- Groups saying “How the heck did we do that?!” and then figuring out the answer to their own questions together.
- Groups born in diversity, because these groups can trace themselves back to two people (and several sets of two and three people) all thinking to themselves “I’d be a whole lot better off with that person, because they have _____ that I don’t.” or “He’s better at that than I am.” Or “She knows more about that than I do.” Or “They’re connecting with people I’d like to be connecting with.”
- Groups that foster other self-organizing groups in all directions around them, because they demonstrate that flawed individuals working in flawed systems really can be and do amazing things when they’re together.
- Groups that give individuals visible, tangible hope (including individuals within the group itself).
- Groups that help members recognize when it’s time to let go (when what matters most to them has changed).
I recognize my own groups each moment in which I think “This group showed up to teach me what I needed to learn next.” The self-organizing groups I encounter are only those very close to me—my own groups and close others. As an individual, I can’t judge self-organizing groups at a distance. Closeness matters. Emotionally if not physically.
My definition will evolve continually to reflect what my groups and I (including you) know now. The evolution of the word interests me more these days than its stable definition. Because the moments it changes are the most interesting moments (and the change always has to include and honor all the groups studied to date)! From January 2011 onward, all groups I study define themselves up front as “surprised and delighted by what we become and do together.” Across seven years, and 14,000+ hours consciously studying self-organizing groups, I’ve come to trust this research far more than I imagined possible, because I completely trust the groups I study and am part of. Trust in my individual self is getting easier, most days, thanks to these groups.
You asked me “Also, have you seen “evil” self-organizing groups?” From my perspective, evil is a word that belongs in the hands of someone far, far wiser than me. I’m not qualified to use it to describe living beings. No living being I personally know fits that description. Self-org groups have taught me that it’s pointless to negatively judge distant others, because I’ll never have the full story. Today, for me, evil self-organizing groups don’t exist, because for me self-organizing groups are self-aware groups of people surprised and delighted by what they become and do together. For me, these groups are an “us” that we’re only just beginning to recognize.
FYI, my perspective on the subject was originally and continues to be strongly influenced by the work of Humberto Maturana. He’s one of my emotionally, not physically, close group members.
P.S. If it’s ok with you, I’d like to share this as a blog post at some point.