Continuing from previous blog on the subject of sustaining self-organizing work groups.
6. As a group, they become better able to embrace and appreciate:

A. Being learners
B. Their own and others’ differences
C. Their own and others’ limitations

And they make the time to notice that this is happening to them. This sustains the group…

A. Being learners

In the groups I’ve studied and been part of, group members jump in to learn together, and they share what they don’t know as openly as what they do know—first with one or two others, then with a larger self-organizing group, and eventually with more others around them such as their own students, peers, customers, managers, administrators, friends, neighbors, and, for some, even strangers. The groups appear to move toward greater wholeness, rejecting the need for perfection in all things and embracing being learners. This also seems a somewhat unintentional outcome for the individuals within the groups. Together the individuals can really know and focus on what matters most to them (both themselves and one category of “others”—which can be different for different group members), and when they forget what matters most to them, other group members are there to remind them. This focus on self and one category of others appears to help push them along in being learners as well.

Learning appears to be at the center of how these groups operate, and people around them appear drawn to them because of it. One peer described working with a self-organizing work group this way: “I had a lot of freedom, flexibility, to do things on my own. And I could actually tell people, or share what I did, as opposed to having to defend what I did, you know. That was a difference.”

I believe people can see themselves in the groups because people are learners, and they recognize learners when they see them. Groups I speak to after the groups’ lifetimes notice this too. Multiple peers of group members within organizations I’ve spoken to have noticed that:

  • Learning mattered more to the group than perfection
  • They themselves had the opportunity to do better than what the group itself had done
  • Some other management-created teams in the division trying to replicate what the group had done got bogged down, in part, by striving for perfection in every little detail

This led me to recognize that these groups are co-led by learners, not by experts. Individual members are experts at certain things—and are perceived by some people around the group as experts at many things—but they are not experts at what they were trying to do as a group. Those drawn to the group and, especially those who knew this, were inspired and empowered by the group to try similar approaches for themselves.

B. Their own and others differences

One of the things I experienced as part of my own first self-organizing work group was that as part of the group, more and more people began to experience me as a leader. Time and again I was surprised as people called me a leader or mentioned leadership skills and abilities in me—those, at first, I couldn’t for the life of me see in myself. From my individual perspective, I was still the same shy, quiet, conflict avoider who hated to speak in public (where public equals more than 3 people in the room) and cringed when people visibly hurt one another. Then one day I recognized what was happening. The five of us had grown so close that the skills and abilities each one of us had were being attributed to all of us. People could see one person’s ability to calm an angry crowd, one person’s data analysis abilities, one person’s energy and humor, one person’s political abilities and clout, and one person’s ability to focus on learning as things WE ALL HAD. Plus, a few of the things that we began to be able to do—such as speak five group perspectives at once (the formal groups we were each part of) or speaking on behalf of multiple close/nearby groups with minimal worry or fear (knowing other group members would step in to support and also shape/revise/mold what we said to suit their own groups, as needed)—were actually skills and abilities of the group itself. That is, none of us had (or recognized) these abilities when we showed up as individuals.

When I talk to self-organizing groups near the end or after the group’s lifetime, I always hear about the importance of difference from group members. Close, nearby others recognize and comment on this as well. She pulled and pushed me outside of my comfort zone. I never would have ____ without him there. I couldn’t see this ability in me—I saw it in her. Then one day, I finally saw it in myself. They allowed me to experiment and allowed me to see something new within myself. I learned I could be a great _____ as long as I have another group member by my side. Whether they’re there in person or in my imagination, my group members are always by my side–this helps me be far more brave than I thought I could be. I hear introverts talk about being pulled by extroverts to social events. Introverts talk about bringing extroverts with them when speaking to groups. Group members who see themselves as unorganized draw on the organizing abilities of other group members. Group members who see themselves as not understanding the politics of the organization draw on the political savvy of other group members. Group members who aren’t strong with using data to support arguments draw on the skills of other group members. Group members learning how to convey the right tone in email thanks to other group members. Not to mention learning more about the job roles and knowledge of other group members and getting better at their own jobs as a result.

Group members get to know each other as people and get to bring more and more of their whole selves into what they’re doing as a group: their humor, their pain, their fears, their joy, their families, their complexity, and their connections. Time and again, these groups attribute their success as a group to each other, to people who came before them (sometimes decades or lifetimes before them–including authors, heros, ancestors, etc.), to the people the group serves, to the people around them such as families, neighbors, and friends, and even to the people who are coming next to pick up the remaining work.

It was as part of my own first self-aware, self-organizing group that I fully recognized what differences within my groups and within my life in general give me. The more differences there are in my groups, the more I can see, the more I can imagine, the more I can become, and the more I can be. The more differences in my groups, communities, organizations, and disciplines there are, the more other people and groups around us can see themselves in us, be drawn to us, and want to work with us.

As a group member, my own groups continue to help me to embrace and appreciate our differences. For example, I became part of a self-organizing group of consultants this year. As I looked closely at what each of them does amazingly well—and continue to reflect on this and on what I most naturally and happily do—I recognized myself as first and foremost a learner/researcher/blogger/speaker (none of these things feel like work to me anymore–they are pure joy). If I didn’t have this group, it may have taken me years to figure out that I’m actually not a consultant in the way my consulting friends are. Thanks to the group, it took me just a few days and relatively little individual angst to figure this out.

C. Their own and others limitations

Through my own first self-aware self-organizing group, I learned to be ok with attracting some—but not all—other people to the group’s (and my) ideas. Some people were interested in and inspired by the group’s work like we were, some joined us and changed us, but not everyone liked, cared about, or even noticed what we were doing.

The groups I’ve studied since demonstrate that this is actually a good thing. Although I may be tempted to as an individual, I don’t need to force ideas. The ideas that these groups demonstrate appear to follow a path of most acceptance by going anywhere that others drawn to the group recognize their usefulness in addressing related needs within themselves and those who matter most to them. I remember this quote I liked as a kid: “It is pleasant to have been to a place the way a river went.” Thoreau said that. From my perspective today, following a path of most acceptance—the way of self-organizing groups—is far more pleasant (and, I would add, more strenuous) than the “path of least resistance” idea demonstrated by the river. It means that until you recognize what truly matters to another person and group–until you can see yourself in them and they can see themselves in you–all the grandstanding, powerplaying, bullying, piles of data to support your opinion (and other individual-first approaches) are ultimately worthless. As a self-organizing group member, you learn this quickly. I noticed this near the end of the lifetime of my first self-organizing group. Today I recognize this every step of the way and with everyone I meet.

People are always learning in/with/from the self-organizing groups I study, but primarily those nearby drawn to the group or group members, those personally close to group members, and those interested in working and thinking in new ways. One peer I interviewed was not interested in what the group was demonstrating. She didn’t see the group at all during its lifetime, even though this peer spent every day with several group members for the year the group was together. Another peer left the division to go work in another division when he saw the greater level of connectedness that would be required if what the group was pushing for actually happened (and he said he wasn’t personally interested in it although he wished the group well in their efforts). The groups I study have limitations. Many people cannot even see them. And it appears that people distant from them cannot see them at all, for example. From my perspective today, these limitations serve a greater good. I’ll talk about this a little here and in more detail in the blogs in the months ahead.

Recognizing and accepting the group’s limitations helps keep individual egos in check, fosters other self-organizing groups around them, allows a greater number of people to become leaders, and helps bring individuals peace. I’ve learned the hard way that keeping my individual ego in check and being part of groups that bring me peace are necessary parts of opening the space to allow for greater things—things that I cannot fully imagine as an individual—to happen. I could have saved myself a boatload of frustration and angst and stress during my first year with my first self-organizing work group (not to mention the previous 15 years of my career) had I been able to do these things as well as some other group members did! But this was not something I was capable of doing before that first year with my first group. It is something I learned in my first group—and see in the groups I’ve studied since—that I’ve hung on to and been using ever since.

As a relatively young person, born and raised in a relatively young country (from most of my ancestors’ perspective anyway), the idea of “accepting limitations” didn’t come easily to me. I’d been raised to believe that anything was possible for us as individuals. Self-organizing groups expand and deepen my understanding of this concept. As an individual, for example, I could walk to the very edge of the roof of a building and decide I want to fly into the air. Accepting my limitations as an individual allows me to:

  1. decide not leap off the roof that very moment
  2. begin to imagine what it would take to actually make flying a reality for me (sturdy wings? wind? a helmet? a jet pack? a very thick cushion on the ground?)
  3. recognize who should be involved to make what I aspire to a reality (e.g., a friend who is an engineer? a kite builder? my father the airline pilot who actually tried this with his brothers as a kid?)
  4. eventually, recognize my self as something greater than a lone, individual self

For me today, accepting limitations has little to do with “giving up” in any negative sense. It’s about being brave enough to recognize a limit in my individual self and ideas, to show this to others, and then to watch in amazement as people show up around me to help. It’s about expanding my self to include others, so that I can move from a place of even greater awareness, ability, and imagination. It is because of our limitations that we need to connect. This has turned me into someone who is grateful beyond words for my own limitations and, most days, for the limitations of other individuals as well. I’ve even stopped noticing and complaining about my husband’s huge shoes lying haphazardly around the house. Most days.