Continuing from previous blog. The last two things I see in these groups that helps them sustain themselves are that:

7. As a group, they rely on the group’s strengths (and notice that this is happening)
Group members do this in the moment—sometimes talking about it and often not. Here are several examples I’ve seen in the groups I study and am part of:

  • Members working most closely become comfortable speaking on behalf of the others. They do so knowing that the others will understand their intention even if what they say isn’t 100 percent correct and trusting that the others are smart enough and flexible enough to adjust the group’s message—and their intentions–as needed. They also became capable of communicating multiple perspectives at once (their own, other group members’, and the group as a whole).
  • Members taking what they learn about the other group members’ areas of expertise and using it to improve their own areas of expertise. Both their own as an individual and that of their formal teams, groups, departments, districts, disciplines, and communities.
  • Group members not originally seeing themselves as ________, becoming _________. Here the blank equals what the group is doing at the time. It can be many things (not just one blank) and is different for each individual. For example, it could be spontaneous, well organized, creative, public speakers, leaders, writers, business owners, resilient, consultants, able to handle conflict, researchers, innovative, extroverts, dancers, smart, flexible, or politically savvy depending on the group and what the group formed to do.
  • Group members becoming increasingly fearless. As people within these groups bring more of their whole selves to their work/practice/event/performance—and see that that’s ok within the group—they start to be more themselves with a growing circle of others. Sometimes group members notice this on their own and sometimes they learn of it when nearby others comment on their new-found courage or record them in action.
  • Less and less voice communication is needed. Because group members like being together, they are together longer and work closely enough to understand where each members’ strengths and needs are. They eventually become capable of taking actions and making decisions about who will do what without talking about it much or, in some cases, at all:
    • Co-led meetings don’t have to be planned. The group can show up and make decisions together in the moment, on the fly. They can look like they planned ahead when they actually didn’t.
    • Communication outside the group usually quite naturally comes from the most suitable person or collection of people. Members know who among them would be best to speak and represent their perspective with other people and groups, and members volunteer and are called on by the others as needed.
    • Group members begin to anticipate what the others need and provide it before they ask for it. This ability spreads out from the group to include those nearby and those the group is serving (people the group considers part of itself). Nearby others–those who can see the group–become able to do the same for them because they’re working in a more visible manner than they were as individuals.
  • Leadership naturally moves around, depending on what the group is doing in the moment. Including leadership moving to nearby people and groups, as needed.
  • When they make mistakes, members tend to see it as part of the process and forgive themselves and each other quickly, and then move on. For some, this quick forgiveness appears to be because they are more aware of every group member’s challenges, constraints, and limitations, including their own.

Perhaps the most important result—from my perspective—is that in relying on the group’s strengths, members became aware of more of their own strengths and release many of their own fears. For example, here are just a few of the fears that the groups I’ve studied and been part of allowed various members to release:

  • I just can’t:
    • Talk to customers
    • Speak effectively in public
    • Connect with some partners/customers/students/parents/community members/managers/employees/teachers
    • Consistently communicate with everyone I need to
    • Be spontaneous in front of strangers
    • Use the right tone in e-mail messages
  • I’m not sure that I:
    • Can facilitate a productive discussion with peers/partners/customers/strangers
    • Can deal with a particularly difficult customer/partner/student/community member
    • Have the skills to do what I need to do right now (for example, complete this major project, create the better products our customers want, create lesson plans for learners with disabilities, consistently communicate with those served, learn a dance number, dance in public, complete this degree program, effect change in my community)
  • I’m going to be:
    • Overlooked by upper management
    • Let go due to outsourcing
    • Let go if the division can’t make better products and is itself eliminated from the larger organization
    • A bottleneck and completely overwhelmed by this large portfolio of products
    • Attacked by the people I let down
    • Laughed at by others
    • The only one who doesn’t finish

Some fears are acknowledged and discussed in the moment by group members and some aren’t fully noticed and discussed until after the lifetime of the groups. I share this because I know that the idea of becoming more visible in our organizations isn’t always appealing. Many of us believe that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered in” in our organizations, because we have experienced it and seen it with our own eyes—our individual’s eyes. The groups’ eyes appear to see more:

  • A group of strangers learned that they could have fun together, dance together, and surprise themselves and others with an amazing, unexpected (by many) performance. They learned that they inspired others by their willingness to work across boundaries and by risking embarassment, and they themselves were inspired by what the group became capable of.
  • A group of teachers were certain that they had done everything they possibly could for all their students and were certain that their administration, students, and students’ parents all knew it too. They also spoke about changes within themselves—becoming more confident, for example—and becoming aware of a culture shift among other teachers and peers whose perspectives began to change around them.
  • An employee group watched its entire division change in response to its work—both informally (culture shift as more peers came to see what was possible in the division) and formally (upper management recognition of the work and subsequent formal reorganizations). They also talked about changes within themselves—more confidence, more self-esteem, and less fear than they’d had as individuals.

As these groups end, the individuals appear to take their group’s experience and their group’s eyes with them. These less fearful individuals strike out on their own again; this time as 1) an individual, but also as 2) someone who knows they’ll be supported by the group members they’re closest to wherever they go next, and 3) as a group member now looking for other groups–like this amazing group–to become a part of.

8. As a group, they make time to notice the benefits of this new way of being (and notice they have more time to do this)

According to the groups I’ve studied and the people around them, there are a significant number of benefits to working as self-organizing groups. Group members notice more benefits than others, in part because together they make the time to notice. They are regularly working/playing with people with whom they want to work/play/think/reflect/learn, so they simply spend more time doing so. All the groups I’ve studied and been part of demonstrate group members enjoying themselves and being challenged and stretched in a safe environment, and group members I talk to are aware of that fact even in the moment. One person described his time with his group as “free therapy.” Another person teasingly described his group as “free range chickens” compared to the “veal calves in a pen” they had been (and many others in the organization were, I think he was implying). Multiple groups have compared themselves to jazz musicians. Several of the groups directly mentioned that they seem to have more time than others.

That said, as part of my first self-organizing work group, sometimes I was too busy to notice—in the moment—the benefits of working this way, especially in the beginning. I often didn’t take the time to notice when good things were happening around me and in me. Other group members were much better at this than I was and often drug me out to lunch or coffee to talk and reflect together. Those of us who often allow fear to rise to the surface and dominate (or is it those of us who love to work so much that we forget to stop and relax?) need to remember to make time to notice this way of being, in the moment, even as group members. At least at first. Examples of things the groups I study do:

  • Regularly have coffee, tea, a meal, or drinks together (as a group, smaller sub-groups, and sometimes including others) where they informally discuss their work and their lives
  • Play together (as smaller sub groups and sometimes as a whole group), for example exercising together, shopping together, getting their families together, playing music together, playing games together, or dancing together. What constitutes play is group specific (some would never dance together or think to get their families together, for example). However, playing can be seen in all the groups I study, including the groups that came together within and across organizations for the purpose of getting work accomplished.
  • Share in-the-moment appreciation with group members and others as they work together
  • Have 5- to 10-minute impromptu mini-work and mini-reflection sessions (What just happened? Did you see what I saw? Why did that work? What could we do differently next time? Can you believe that just happened!)
  • Often reflect on the groups’ work when they’re on their own—in the car, on the bus, while exercising, in the shower, etc.—because they enjoy thinking about it

It appears to be important to spend as much time as you can noticing what is happening to you as a group: noticing what you and others are gaining, what you and others are letting go of, and what the experience of being a self-organizing group means for you (and, by extension, your organization, community, discipline, and larger system). Thankfully, I learned better late than never that this is time very well spent. I must think it’s important, or I wouldn’t be doing this full-time today!

If your self-organizing group’s experience in sustaining yourself is different or similar, let me know. I’d love to talk to you about your experience.