You can expect amazing things from these groups, but what those things actually are, you can’t entirely know ahead of time. Think about a self-organizing group that you’ve seen somewhere: like several jazz musicians or rappers spontaneously improvising amazing music in the moment or a flash mob of people somewhat spontaneously performing a Michael Jackson or Lady Gaga song in a city park. You can expect to be surprised and wowed. Or you can expect nothing and still be surprised and wowed.

From my perspective as a researcher and self-org group member, the most amazing results and outputs of these groups are unexpected, somewhat surprising by-products. They are fringe benefits of working in these groups–groups that allow you to be more of your whole self at work. Instead of focusing on outputs with these groups (which, frankly, organizational employees are responsible for as part of their formal teams anyway), today I see these groups as first and foremost capable of bringing forth remarkable personal and organizational development–so many of those things that our more formalized, planned-to-exist-forever teams struggle with. For example, here are the key impacts, from my perspective, that I’ve seen self-organizing work groups have:

  1. Provided free, effective on-the-job skills training, soft skills training, and leadership training for group members and nearby peers, managers, and administrators open to new ways of working and thinking—training that executives, management, and administration in the organizations didn’t have to sell, mandate to others, or even know about.
  2. Resulted in meaningful improvements within people in and some people near the groups, including increased sense of connectedness, confidence in self and others, creativity, resilience, awareness of what mattered most, gratitude, and job satisfaction; improved job performance; and improved ability to imagine possibilities for self and others.
  3. Allowed group members and some nearby others to fully experience “others” as part of themselves. This appeared to pull these people to a new level of self-understanding from which they then raised their own expectations of themselves and others. It also appears that once people reach this understanding (that they really are better, together, than they are on their own) that they became unwilling and unable, most days, to settle for less.
  4. Resulted in meaningful improvements in the organization including improved:
  • Communication across groups within the organization, with people served by the organization, and with related organizations/people such as support organizations/people and partner organizations/people
  • Awareness of needs within the organization, customer needs, and the needs of related organizations/people such as support organizations/people and partner organizations/people
  • Job competencies and skills in and near the group
  • Problem triage capabilities in and near the group
  • Ability to take on new, unexpected, and more difficult work in people in and near the group and in at least some departments and divisions near the group
  • Product and service quality
  • Relationships (more honesty and openness)
  • Perceptions (more willingness to give other people and groups the benefit of the doubt)
  • Resilience (give people and groups energy and combat burnout)

Not to mention that I’ve witnessed these groups bring forth new leaders from within, generate and demonstrate new ideas for products and services, and save time and money.

My own opinion is that the most important thing about these groups isn’t what they produce: it’s what they demonstrate about us as human beings. We have it in us to work as close, smart, agile, grateful, ever-improving collectives. We have it in us to come together across difficulty, time, distance, diverse backgrounds and experience and become something greater together than we are on our own. We can surprise ourselves. These groups teach their members that. And they teach many nearby others too.

My own first 2-year self-org work group got amazing results for our organization. By the time the larger organization fully noticed, though, the group itself had disbanded and the individuals moved on to other things (what mattered most to us had changed). Most people who received the larger organization’s recognition for the new work were peers of the group who’d worked with us, self-organized themselves, improved the group’s work, and carried on from where the group started. Near the end of the group’s lifetime, for many of us in and near the group, we figured out that it wasn’t the results that we were individually after that mattered most to us any more. What mattered most was that we were demonstrating that a cross-department group could work together effectively and happily, make our own work more rewarding and fun, and bring forth important change from the inside out. And we felt grateful and happy to have been part of such an amazing group, and confident that we could do it again. At 36, this task-focused introvert and workaholic finally learned that it wasn’t what she did or what she knew that made her special—it was who she was as this group. I couldn’t see this at all without the help of this group.

Self-organizing work groups will create outputs of some sort to serve the needs of the moment, but what the outputs will be or will look like can’t be entirely known ahead of time, even to the individuals in the group. In these groups, together people become something greater than their individual selves, and when this happens—in that moment—they can imagine more than they could as individuals. The outputs they create as a group knock their own socks off, not to mention many people and groups around them.

In my experience, the outputs these groups create are better than what anyone could expect or plan for as an individual. But how that shows up in different organizations and for different groups is different. It appears to depend on what the group itself is after and how out-in-the-open the particular group is. Some have created outputs:

  • For themselves and those around them, and the outputs didn’t need to go farther than that and nobody outside their circle of influence was any the wiser
  • For their entire organization, making them available for interested others but not forcing them on anyone
  • With people the organization serves, such as with customers
  • That entire business divisions or school districts eventually adopted as their own, although unless you were a researcher determinedly studying the group, you’d be hard-pressed to know where the outputs originated because the people and groups around these groups adjusted the outputs and made them their own

In most organizations I’ve been in, individuals are in more than one type of group. That is, they’re working on their formal team (which they see as a concocted or founded group planned to last into the future, as shown in the figure from Arrow et al, 2000) and as part of a self-organizing work group.

Forces in Group Formation (from Arrow et al, 2000)

Forces in Group Formation (from Arrow et al, 2000)

In these organizations, in my experience, it is the formal team(s) that gets and takes the credit for any outputs that the self-org work groups create. This has been fine with the SOWGs I’ve studied and been part of. These groups just wanted things to improve and together cared less about who got the credit (in fact, self-org work group members I’ve studied attribute success primarily to the group, each other, and to others around the group or being served by the group). Besides, as individuals they were often still part of those formal teams that got the credit (or still experienced themselves as part of those teams even though they’d moved on), so they could be happy and proud when their formal teams got the credit.

Since this doesn’t appear to matter most to the groups themselves, I wouldn’t spend much time worrying about discouraging the organic growth of self-organizing work groups. These groups are powerful groups of highly supported and motivated humans. Although difficult to see if you don’t see yourself as part of one yet, they’re all around us. In my experience, they show up everywhere–even where management and administration appears to be doing every possible thing imaginable to get it their way. You and your organization are ahead of the game in even recognizing that these groups exist and that they are doing the organization good. My recommendation is to:

  1. Focus on learning to recognize self-organization when you see it
  2. Learn from those who are already self-organizing at the group level. Watch for energy, excitement, and people going above and beyond for the people they’re working for and with—where you find these things, you’ll find a self-org group to learn from. Watch, participate, and listen to what is said without words.
  3. Become a self-organizing work group yourself. These groups demonstrate what it takes to self-organize better than individuals can. And as a self-org group yourself, you won’t have to take my word for it that amazing results (and outputs) are the by-products–the fringe benefits–of these groups. Stick with your group, and you’ll experience it yourself.