I’ve studied and been part of at least 14 self-organizing work groups in the past 7 years. You don’t have to encourage active participation in self-organizing work groups. They form in response to personally felt needs of the moment, people stay with them until those needs are met, and then move on from them as what matters most to them as an individual changes.
Forces in Group Formation

Forces in Group Formation

Many of the teams and groups we’re part of at work today appear to be concocted (created by people external to the group) or founded (created by a founding internal member or members). Both types are planned by individuals to last into the future, as shown in this figure from the book Small Groups as Complex Systems (Arrow, McGrath, & Berdahl, 2000). Individuals have to plan and work and struggle to make these groups work and to sustain them into the future. When it comes to self-organizing work groups, however, you have to toss out that way of thinking. Self-organizing work groups form to help individuals. They help you, not the other way around. You don’t have to help them. All you have to do is open yourself up and learn.

My research shows that self-organizing work groups don’t live on indefinitely, from an individual perspective. Those I’ve studied and been part of have had life spans of a few weeks, months, or years. However, they do live on by boosting confidence, self-esteem, and visibility of group members; instilling the desire to keep creating self-organizing groups in their members and in some nearby others; and by fostering other self-organizing work groups around them. From my perspective, this short lifespan from an individual perspective is a very good thing, because it makes it ok for people to follow their own energy and passion. People staying with groups as they need them and moving on as they don’t is a good thing for your organization, even if it doesn’t always feel great in the moment. (Oh, and since these groups can reform again in an instant after their lifetimes, as needed, their ends don’t have to be the sad things that they can appear to be.)

If you feel that you’re part of a self-organizing group that matters a lot to you but others aren’t drawn to it the way you hoped they’d be, I suggest moving into learner mode. Instead of focusing on motivating others—which is a perspective needed with concocted and founded groups that doesn’t appear to serve us well with self-organizing groups—I’d suggest instead that you try to put yourself into a better position to see what self-organizing work groups are already happening and already doing around you.

Two ideas:

  • Find a local SOWG to learn from. Watch the energy level. Where there is visible energy, excitement, and people going above and beyond the call of duty to help each other, you’ll find a self-organizing work group to learn from.
  • Form a new self-organizing work group yourself. Tip: at the beginning of self-org work groups, people:
  1. Experience a difficulty and recognize their personal limitations
  2. Recognize something that they find personally valuable in somebody else—something similar to and different from themselves
  3. Experience a desire to work with that somebody else to simultaneously better serve themselves and the people who matter most to them
  4. Informally talk with the other person or people who they believe would best serve themselves and the people who matter most to them
  5. Stick together and move in the same general direction

Group members join the group for different reasons, but they all go through a similar process to create and join the group for themselves, within themselves. For people open to them, watching (and, even better, participating in) these groups gives people the self confidence they need to try self-organizing for themselves. People are drawn to the groups’ very visible energy and enthusiasm and honesty, see what is possible in the moment, and very often see that they are capable of much of what the group is capable of.

As soon as the group has successfully responded to the in-the-moment needs of its members and the people who matter most to them, it’s on its way to being over.

If you’re part of a self-organizing work group yourself, and you feel your enthusiasm for it wane, that may mean that your individual interests have changed and it’s time for you to let go of your group, let go of the work or turn it over to others who can give more energy and time to the ideas (if that’s needed), and move on to what matters most to you now. If you hold on to your SOWG past successfully tackling the needs you had coming into the group, from my perspective you appear to be trying to move the group back into the planned space. I almost moved my first one back into being a founded group–because I felt too scared to let it go–but the other group members gave me courage and helped me make a different choice. As I mentioned earlier, founded groups are planned by individuals to exist into the future. From my perspective, founded groups contain some members who are resident experts who primarily help solve other people’s problems, not just their own and those who matter most to them right now. If you’re trying to do this, I recommend you find different groups and people to learn with than me and my groups. Founded groups aren’t groups I’m interested in, I don’t actively study them, and I participate in them only to a limited extent, because they’re not as rewarding or as much fun, for me, as self-organizing groups.