An interviewer asked me this question last year—you can still find my response on the Web if you look for it. I’m still fairly satisfied with what I said to him, with one glaring exception. In my three-paragraph answer (good Lord, will I ever be able to say anything concisely?!), I said “I think you have to be a human being to be in a self-organizing work group. Although, I’ve got two Australian shepherds who come pretty dang close.” I’m eating these words this week as my beautiful 11 ½-year-old girl dog Sydney, and her speckled side-kick Grady, help teach me life lessons that I apparently need to learn.

Right now I define self-organizing work groups as spontaneous groups, created from within, to get work-of-the-moment accomplished. Regardless of how the group may appear to have started, groups come fully into the self-organizing space the moment group members recognize that:

  • They’re getting more from the group’s spontaneity than they do from their individual planning
  • They’re generating energy together and are more creative, adaptive, resilient, and fearless thanks to the group
  • Their work is more rewarding, impactful, and fun (most days) because of the group
  • The group itself is the teacher and the leader (group members demonstrate learning and leadership moving around within the group and some call the group leaderless or leaderful saying “We don’t need a leader.” or “We’re all leaders.”)
  • They are grateful and feel lucky to be part of the group”

On Saturday, my dear, beautiful old girl dog stopped eating. This is made significantly more serious by the fact that she’s got inflammatory bowel disease—something that had already made her thin this summer but that she’s been effectively working around with our help. By Tuesday, we decided to put her on prednisone in our family’s final effort to stay together a few more months. It’ll take about a week to work, if it’s going to work at all. But to have that shot of working, we’ve got to keep her eating all 7 of those days. If we can do this and it works, our lucky family will be together a few more months. If not, we’ll be saying goodbye to the warmest, wisest, and furriest family member next week.

How short-sighted was I to say that you had to be a human being to be in a self-organizing work group?! This summer I’ve told several clients “Watch for energy and enthusiasm in nearby others. Look for people going above and beyond the call of duty for each other—there you will find a self-organizing work group to learn with. Watch them. Join them. Listen to what’s being said without words.”

So, you would hardly believe the way my household has rallied around Sydney this week. Daniel and I have scoured the city for healthy and yummy-tasting dog food, we’ve cooked her potatoes to mix into the dog food to make it easier on her stomach, we’ve moved downstairs to sleep since the stairs are tough on her right now, and we’ve minimized work hours this week to maximize the time we’re spending as a family (this blog entry is the only work I’m doing at all this week). As a family, we’re making daily trips to the arboretum, walking in the warm fall sunshine at the dog park, rolling in the grass together, and going on drives around the lake (Syd loves to cruise, head-out-window style, now that she’s old). At home, both of our cats stick nearby in a manner I can only describe as “reverent” (not a word you’d ever have applied to either one, especially Bonzai, before this week). They sleep when she sleeps and play when she’s awake, providing her with entertainment. Our other dog Grady sticks by Syd’s side like glue, cleans her face and ears, brings her stuffed hedgehogs to groom, and most days has refused to eat unless she does (fortunately he’s a bit of a tub, so losing a few pounds isn’t a big deal for him). Both of our busy housemates come immediately to her side when they get home—sit with her, pet her head, massage her legs, and tell her about their days. All our friends and family and work colleagues surround us with love and stories and ideas to help and prayers.

Sydney in the sunshine

Sydney in the sunshine

Syd, Grady, Lori, and Daniel enjoying the sunshine

It took us a couple of days, but Daniel and I noticed that although she’s sleepy, she’s still smiling and happy 99% of the time. She sniffs grass as if it’s the sweetest thing on earth and rolls on her back in the sunshine in pure bliss. We’re the ones stressed out, having nightmares, forgetting to eat, and worrying ourselves into a buying-every-dog-food-known-to-mankind tizzy.  Today we finally noticed something else. Those walks in the sunshine and drives around the lake are helping us. The fear (and accompanying nightmares we were both having Sunday and Monday nights) is slipping away. Whether she’s with us 5 more minutes, days, or months, this has actually been an amazing week of closeness and laughter and love. Last night, Sydney started eating again. Today she’s eating like a horse and keeping it all down. We know that any day this could change, and when it does, she’ll be ready to let go.

The miracle isn’t whether she as an individual lives or dies. (That’s odd. When did I start using the word “miracle”?) The miracle is us, as a group, pulling ourselves out of the rat race long enough to hold this moment, notice that there is warm fall sunshine on our faces, grass to be rolled in, parks to walk in, and recognize that we’re utterly and completely surrounded with support and love.

So, in response to the question about “what personal attributes should ideal group members have?” today I’d be tempted to say “fur, whiskers, and spots on their noses” but I know that those attributes change with every one of these groups I encounter. So please let me reiterate last year’s answer that what matters most to these groups themselves are the attributes of the group, not individual attributes, which can and do vary all over the place. What can you say about the group itself? That’s what matters! That we living beings have it in us to become part of these amazing groups! And please forgive me for the truly short-sighted part of my answer last year and allow me to revise it by saying that you most certainly do NOT need to be a human being to be part of a self-organizing work group. Dogs and cats are naturals—at least mine are. Never before have I been pulled so quickly into recognizing the group itself as both teacher and leader and so quickly been pulled into feeling grateful and honored to be part of the group.

Last week, my other groups reminded me that when I say goodbye to self-organizing work group members, all I’m really saying is “goodbye for now” because I never lose my connection with other group members. This week, the idea of “goodbye for now, not forever” has taken on a deeper and more important meaning for me. I have a group brought forth by two dogs, two cats, and four humans to thank for that.