Continuing from last week’s blog. Here’s more on ideas 4 and 5…

4. As a group, they become more open and visible over time (and can notice this is happening)

The self-organizing groups that I’ve studied and been part of make their creating, brainstorming, and trouble-shooting sessions as visible as possible in their environments and are able to become more so over time. That is, first visible to just a few people, then to a few more, then to a few more, and then, for some groups, a lot more (helped by other self-organizing groups), depending on what the group itself formed to do and how many people/groups need to imagine themselves as part of the group to make that happen. This looks different for each group, but there appears to be great self-organizing-group-sustaining power in allowing the people around the group—peers, students, neighbors, managers, customers, administrators, partners, friends, and family, for example—to see what the group is doing, how it’s learning, how differences in the group improve it, and how it operates.

These groups let members, nearby others, and people close to group members see that they don’t have all the answers, see them make mistakes, and participate in/witness their work. In the process, group members and nearby others get to see that:

  1. As a collective, people can be really good at imagining something new, coming up with great ideas, working through issues, dispelling fear, and finding solutions—better than they can be as individuals
  2. That as individuals they aren’t superheroes with unattainable knowledge or skills and often they are “just winging it” and “just playing it by ear”

People and groups drawn to the group, including group members themselves, appear to learn from the group:

  1. How to work collectively in their environment. They notice and pick up on everything group members demonstrate and say, including diverse non-verbals—ways of being together—that the group itself demonstrates. For example, the attitudes, behaviors, soft skills, and leadership skills of the group as a whole that support working this way in the environment at the time.
  2. That working collectively can be effective and worthwhile in their environment despite the many difficulties and obstacles perceived by individuals

Those who stick around long enough come to perceive the group and its members as leaders (and themselves as leaders for recognizing them as such). Some consider themselves part of the group. These witnesses:

  • Become advocates for the group and group members, providing unsolicited free support and informal advertising for the group and its members, only some of which the group itself learns about (later they’ll be surprised when people contact them: “What?! How did you learn about us?!!”)
  • Gain confidence in themselves, realizing “Well, if they can do this, so can I.”
  • Gain confidence in other people and groups in the environment, realizing “If they can do this, so can <their department; formal team; others in their field or discipline; their organization; their community;  and people of their background, age, gender, orientation,  etc>” Using that humans-love-to-categorize-things-and-people part of themselves (that, as individuals, often gets us into serious trouble) people in and near these groups appear to use that quality for the betterment of themselves and those around them (and for everyone, for those of you who see us as all connected). They immediately extend the good will and “benefit of the doubt” that they extend to group members to all the formal and obvious groups that group members are part of. Note: This is so amazing to watch and hear about that, in the moment, it often makes me cry. Crying blows away any chance I had of coming across as the “professional researcher” image that I used to carry around in my mind. Oh well. I think that image was in serious need of an upgrade anyway.

The point is that these groups become more visible over time and that that, in itself, sustains them. Sometimes this is intentional but often this happens in ways that are unintentional and aren’t fully noticed by group members until near the end of or after the group’s lifetime.

5. As a group, they become more inclusive and adaptive—expanding incrementally to include others (and notice this is happening)

The groups I study imagine and include others in themselves. Three examples:

  1. Example 1: A self-organizing corporate employee group sought help from other individuals regularly, giving most of their time to people who could expand and imagine the group’s ideas working. They began what appears to have become their organization’s perpetual re-design of work processes to receive more customer and partner organization feedback. The group conducted multiple pilot projects over several years in which they—and peers from all over the organization—worked closely with customers and partner organizations. Many peers came to consider themselves part of the group at some point too. Many people–across the labels of employee, customer, partner, peer, manager, other division employee–became lifelong friends who continue to go out of their way to support each other.
  2. Example 2: Outside of formal organizations, three members of a not-well-attended discussion group recognized that they had something in common–all were new consultants. They reimagined the group as a “new consultants” group and more members joined. The next month, a long-time consultant asked to join the group, so the label “new consultants” no longer fit the group. Then, one of the members—surrounded by other consultants—recognized herself as a researcher more than a consultant. At the moment, the group is providing support for self-employed consultants, researchers, teachers, and people who aspire to become these things—in the fields of learning, organizational development, and leadership and management development. The thread currently holding them together is a desire to connect, be with others, and work in even healthier and more fulfilling ways than they could as full-time corporate employees. Where the group is going next is anybody’s guess, but several members are now friends and pretty certain that they’re all going somewhere great together.
  3. Example 3: A teacher group pulled their students into the group by, for example, sharing and using their group-created shortcut language with students and striving to answer all questions that were important to students, even when they occasionally seemed off-topic to the teachers. They also involved a nearby peer who subsequently used what she learned from the group to take on a leadership role, and a district administrator who became a supporter and promoter for the school and the work they were doing.

These groups demonstrate some intentional inclusiveness and also that greater inclusiveness can happen unintentionally and as an apparent consequence of working as a self-organizing group. That is, regardless of whether you showed up seeing yourself and others as inclusive and adaptable individuals or not, these groups appear to help the individuals within them–and some nearby others and people personally close to group members–become more so. And increasing inclusiveness and adaptability appears to be one of the things that sustains these groups over time.