Last week, a group I created in February—one that I’d hoped would last for years—ended. Six months of life, and now the Seattle-Area Self-Organizing Systems discussion group is no more. I’m surprised to find that I’m not even a little bit sad about the demise of this group, because the group evolved itself into one that I and others needed even more—a group for new leadership, organizational development, and learning and training consultants in the Seattle area. A group that I hadn’t fully recognized I needed on my own.
In January, I decided that I needed to surround myself with other local, knowledgeable, folks on the subject of self-organizing systems or groups. I reached out to every person and group I knew, and 15 local people said they’d be interested in a monthly self-organizing systems discussion group. But then an unusual (or maybe not so unusual) thing happened. Of those 15 people, only 4 of us showed up to the monthly discussions. And the only person who claimed career focus on the subject of self-organizing groups or systems was me. At first, I was frustrated, thinking I’d inadvertently created a founded group—a more formal group than I wanted and one in which I’d be an expert teaching others. That wasn’t the kind of group I was looking for.
But the others who showed up were all amazing people, and as it turned out, we all had something else in common. We’re all relatively new consultants in the fields of organizational development, leadership, and/or learning and training. At the second group meeting, we tossed out the agenda entirely and helped one member solve a consulting client’s issue. It was way more fun, impactful, and rewarding than what we’d planned to discuss. This was the working-on-in-the-moment-needs group I really needed! By our fourth meeting, we tossed out our old label—goodbye “Seattle-Area Self-Org Systems Discussion Group” and took on a new one—hello “New Organizational/Leadership/Learning Development Consultants Group.” This 4-person group is happy to be learning together. As a member every time we part I can’t wait to see them again and feel lucky to be part of the group. I found 3 other people willing to let group spontaneity win out over individual planning. This is the group I really wanted and needed–one that simultaneously supports us as new consultants, surrounds us with people who have different strengths that we can draw on and support, and, for me as an individual, gives me yet another self-organizing group to study (yea!). And in August, several interested others want to join us, including one person I already knew.
This is a self-organizing work group. Not the group I thought was most important as an individual expert, but an even better group–the group I actually need most right now as a learner. In hindsight, I’ve witnessed a similar group evolution happen before at the true start (collective start, not individual start) of other self-organizing work groups I’ve studied in businesses, universities, and high schools.
So how do you evolve a planned group into a self-organizing work group? You allow it to happen. It’ll look different for everyone, but for me and the groups I’ve studied and been part of it appears to be mostly about letting go as an individual. Just for a moment, let go of the individual plans you thought you needed and the individual expertise you have. Let go of the group or people you thought you needed as an individual. Who are the people who always show up to do or talk about what matters most to you? Who shows up again and again? What does that diverse group have in common? What’s making all of you give up your time with your individual work, families, and lives to be together? What do you actually do and talk about most of the time? What’s drawing you together? That’s where your self-organizing work group lives. My own research taught me that individuals don’t start self-organizing work groups–small 2- or 3-person groups, tackling the needs of the moment, do. It took this latest group to drive that point home, I guess.
Your next self-organizing work group already exists. It’s just waiting to be discovered. Every time I let go of my individual plans and expertise and decide for a moment to be a learner, to just listen and watch for a little while, I’m amazed at how quickly a self-organizing work group shows up to teach me what I actually need to learn right now. And it’s always more than I could have expected as an individual.