When your self-organizing work group succeeds in accomplishing the work-of-the-moment that it came into existence to do, it may be obvious that the group needs to end. This has been the case for some of the groups I’ve studied and been part of. But it may also be unclear at what point–exactly–you as an individual should let go of the group and its work. This has been the experience of other groups I’ve studied and been part of. From my perspective today, here are five signs that it may be time to let go of your SOWG and its work and ideas:

  1. A larger group that the SOWG is a part of (for example, your formal team, division, organization, department, district, and so on) incorporates the group’s work into itself. For example:
    • Informally, people in a larger group perceive that what was “That group’s work.” is now simply “The way we’re doing things.”
    • A larger group has repeatedly recognized the group’s work with praise, awards, funding, etc.
    • A larger group formally changes itself in response to the group’s work. For example, formal reorganizations happen or the SOWG’s practices are adopted as a larger group’s practices
  2. You no longer share work in common with other members. For example, one teacher group I studied ended naturally when the teachers no longer shared students in common because of graduation.
  3. What matters most to you as an individual has changed. You may notice that:
    • Your passion for the group’s work has diminished a little bit
    • You can’t make the time for the work that you used to
    • You don’t receive energy from the work like you used to
    • There are other people more engaged and passionate about the ideas put forth by the group than you are
  4. These may be signs that you should step aside and let those others take over.

  5. It occurs to you that your letting go may be an important factor in sustaining the ideas demonstrated by the group. In many of these groups, at some point it just becomes clear that the work and ideas the group is demonstrating really are not about us as individuals. In one group, for example, to best demonstrate this to our division as a whole, at least some members (especially several very visible members who had led pilot project efforts) needed to let go and move on to something else so the division could better see that others were capable of doing the collaborative, cross-division work we’d been demonstrating and saying was possible within the whole division.
  6. Other SOWG members tell you that you’re ready to let go. With my first group, I wasn’t a person who noticed on my own that it was time to move on. Another group member helped me see that I was ready to go. Without his insights, it may well have taken me months or even years to figure out that I should go. On my own, I wasn’t ready to fully admit to myself that what mattered most to me had changed and that what I wanted to do next would require a huge leap of faith—from high-paid expert to non-paid full-time learner—a leap that was incredibly scary for me to make as an individual. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t only an individual self anymore. I was also a collective self.

I’ve learned that if I continue as an individual to push my SOWGs forward past these points, I risk moving them out of the state of being amazing self-organizing work groups—groups serving the needs of the moment, generating energy, and fostering self-organization within and around them—and toward the state of being a founded group. If creating a founded group is what you want, it is important to be aware of that fact so that you can seek help elsewhere. Founded groups are less interesting to me and not where my interest, time, and attention lies, so this blog likely can’t provide the support you’ll need if you take your group in that direction.

From my perspective, a key differentiator of self-org work groups that I experience today is that they support me as an individual in knowing when to let go and move on. Ever been part of a team or group that seemed to drag on forever? How about one that people couldn’t even remember why the group was created in the first place? Or one that held meetings that were so dull that you emailed, texted, or IM’d other people just to keep yourself awake and make the time go faster? (the modern equivalents of passing notes in class) I have been. It sucks. And in hindsight, I think that this was another reason that I was drawn to studying self-organizing work groups all those years ago. Even back then I knew that life’s too short to spend time in groups that aren’t serving me and others well. Thanks to my own self-organizing work groups, I haven’t had to be part of groups like those in 7 years, and today I know that I’ll never have to be again. Yea!