This extra blog this week is for my dear friend (and self-org work group member) writing an important paper that’s due today. Good luck, D!

From my perspective as a researcher (studying 18 self-organizing groups) and my perspective as a group member (having been consciously part of more than a dozen of these groups myself since 2004), my answer is yes. There are small work groups in all environments that really do change the systems they are part of, despite any and all obstacles you can possibly imagine. Today, I happen to believe that small groups of people—not individuals—bring forth change from within, regardless of what “level” they’re at in organizations. Actually, since I’ve been paying attention to only self-organizing work groups for 7 years now, I often struggle to see the “top” and “bottom” in organizations that others see, because the groups I study organize from the inside out within three dimensional space and foster other groups that do the same. Here are two examples from the self-organizing groups and work groups I’ve studied and been part of.

Example 1

A self-organizing work group of high school general and special education teachers—working as a group one school year in which they shared a particularly large number of students—found they saved time the closer they became (for example, teachers knowing what the others needed and providing it before they had to ask, creating a shortcut language that their students eventually adopted, etc.). As they had more time, they could see more in their students (both what they were capable of and what they needed help with) more quickly and could more quickly come up with a solution (or let go of a solution that wasn’t needed by this particular student or group of students). As both semesters they worked together drew to their ends, they were certain that they had done everything they possibly could do for all their students and were certain that their administration, students, and students’ parents all knew it too. They spoke about and demonstrated changes within themselves:

  • Becoming more confident
  • Becoming aware that their expectations for all groups they were part of had been raised
  • Becoming aware of a culture shift among other teachers and peers whose perspectives began to change around them
  • Recognizing that students labeled by others as “trouble” were amazing students in their collective presence
  • Noticing that as a group they began to ask tougher questions of the larger system they were part of
  • Watching themselves and nearby others become leaders

Their story was backed up by:

  • A peer who had watched the group, worked with them occasionally, seen her own abilities thanks to the group, and who took on a district-level role when one of the group members left the organization due to a spouse relocation
  • A district-level administrator who had witnessed changes within group members (not even knowing that they were part of a group), who began sending the district’s most difficult students to the school in acknowledgement of the success they were having, and who was inspired by the group to continue pushing for teacher collaboration in the district
  • The special education department receiving its first “teacher of the year” award in the school’s long history
  • All but one of their collective students graduated high school! (impressive by any measure but made particularly impressive by the fact that the general ed teachers taught the courses known to be the most difficult for students as a whole)
  • The fact that they pulled me into their group and role switched/role shared with me—asking me questions about my own group experiences and giving me the confidence to step out of my role as objective researcher and answer as group member
  • A former student who we happened to run into when the group went out to lunch. This student gushed about the group, what she’d been able to see in herself thanks to the group (who could see more in her than other teachers had), and the job she’d gotten as a result

Example 2

A self-organizing work group of employees came together to bring their silo’d departments closer together by creating and designing families of products instead of by-department products that didn’t work well together and often directly competed with one other. Across three pilot projects, in which new people from across the organization participated each time, this group watched their entire division change in response to their work—both informally (culture shift as more peers came to see what was possible in the division) and formally (upper management recognition of the work, funding of the work, and subsequent formal reorganizations in response to the work). The group talked about and demonstrated changes within themselves:

  • More confidence
  • More self-esteem and less fear than they’d had as individuals
  • Recognizing themselves as having become leaders in the division thanks to the group
  • Learning that by letting go of their ideas at key moments they could actually help spread the ideas in the division (by letting others pick up and take on remaining-to-be-done work they also became leaders themselves)
  • Recognizing that they sought to work this way with others thanks to the group

Their story was backed up by:

  • Multiple peers and managers who’d worked closely with the group during their pilot projects, all of whom described the important changes made in the division as well as similar confidence and self-esteem improvements within themselves and others (they also demonstrated them after the lifetime of the group)
  • The division receiving its first ever award from the larger organization as a whole
  • Partner organizations recognizing that the division was giving them more than it used to—information that helped them do their work—and raising their expectations of the division as a whole
  • Other divisions calling the group to learn about what the group was doing
  • Group members being asked and excited to speak at organizational and industry conferences and events

Very Important Caveat!

I’ve learned from all the self-organizing work groups that I’ve studied and been part of that saying that a small group changes a large system isn’t exactly accurate. I’ve learned from these groups that:

  • People change themselves
  • Small groups change themselves
  • Divisions and departments change themselves
  • Organizations, districts, fields, disciplines, and communities change themselves

From my perspective today, one of the reasons that self-organizing work group members come to be seen as leaders is that they’ve learned this important lesson for themselves, thanks in large part to their own self-organizing work groups. These groups allow group members and at least some nearby others to see more than they could as individuals, including being far more aware of all the people and groups who helped them along the way throughout the lifetime of the group and also the lifetime of the individuals within the group. So if you ask a self-organizing work group who changed their system, you’ll hear multiple answers from multiple grateful and humble individuals who will say something like “Well, we did, but also…”

  • Our peers did!
  • Our managers did!
  • Our students did!
  • Our customers did!
  • Our administration did!
  • Our partner organizations did!
  • Our formal department did!
  • Our organization did!
  • Our people did!
  • Our employees did!
  • Our mentors did!
  • Our communities did!
  • Our families did!
  • Our spouses did!
  • Our children did!
  • Our friends did!

According to group members, this isn’t because they were all extraordinary individuals to begin with. This is because they are part of a group that is allowing them time and space to actually be, do, and see far more than they could see as individuals. And they know it. I have yet to find false humility and gratitude in a self-organizing work group. That humility and gratitude–like the confidence and self-esteem they helped bring forth–appears to be hard earned together!