I was asked this last week, and I bungled the answer in person. I think the answer depends on your perspective. Here’s mine. In 2005, when I recognized that the group I was part of was giving us far more than the results we’d imagined for ourselves, in addition to asking everyone I knew if they’d had a similar experience at work, I also poured through my organization’s library and my university’s databases, reviewing other research, scholarly journals, and ideas and theories across (eventually) 22 academic disciplines. I didn’t find much back then.

But I read the description and words “self-organizing group” in Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization and said “That’s us!” Later, I came across this picture in the book Small Groups as Complex Systems: Formation, Coordination, Development, and Adaptation by Holly Arrow, Joseph McGrath, and Jennifer Berdhal and again said “That’s us!” This was the first picture I’d seen that succinctly described the difference in the experience we were having and why we were having it.

Forces in Group Formation (Arrow et al)

In this image, external means from outside the group, internal means from within the group, planned means built by designers, and emergent means arising spontaneously.

As a researcher, I don’t study the difference between the types of groups in this picture. I only study self-organizing groups. I began doing this for a very self-centered reason: the experience of being part of my own self-organizing work group was so amazing, so life altering (and career changing), that this was the only way I wanted to work ever again. Fortunately, my time with my own group had made me confident and aware enough that I could do it. I continue this research, studying self-organizing work groups and groups, for another very self-centered reason: because the more time I spend with these groups, the more amazing things I can see in human beings in general, in human groups, and in human organizations. That, and I learn more rapidly when I’m with them than on my own. For somebody who loves to learn like I do, these groups are irresistable.

As a researcher conducting case study research, all I can do is describe what the self-organizing groups I study are like. If there’s difference to be found between these groups and other groups, it’s up to you to reflect on the teams and groups you work with, and find the difference, if any. That said, I’m also a self-organizing work group member myself. As a group member, here’s my own experience from the first group that helped me recognize myself as a self-organizing work group…

I was working in an organization that was frustrating me. I saw two very passionate people working together on an idea to change things. I recognized their ideas as my ideas. One was so passionate about what they wanted to do that as he stood in the stairwell with me, describing a meeting they’d just had, tears welled up in his eyes. In almost 5 years in the organization, I’d never seen anyone’s eyes well up with tears before (outside of myself, that is). In that moment, I decided to give my organization one more year (I’d been planning to quit). I told him I’d been thinking about the same things the previous year, looked him in the eye and said “I’m with you.” through my own slightly teary eyes.

Eventually, a fourth and then a fifth person joined us from other parts of the division as we recognized we weren’t complete at just 3 people (given the division-wide change we were interested in). We planned and planned and pushed and pushed. It wasn’t easy, but it was rewarding and fun and challenging working together 95% of the time. We decided to take a “pilot” approach and involve others from around the organization. Multiple pilot projects (and more than a year) later, many people had become part of us (some short term, some long term, and most began to promote the work on our behalf in other parts of the division). The last pilot project was very successful. One group member recognized that he needed to let go—to move on to give other people in the organization a chance to do similar, self-organizing work like we’d had the chance to do. As he let go, I began to believe that I could let go. And when I let go of my need to make this work the division’s work, to have everyone do exactly what we were doing, and to become the resident expert, all sorts of amazing things started to happen. The three of us working most closely recognized that we could take individual actions and make individual choices that were in sync (we’d learn later), people around us began to self-organize (at least 3 other self-org groups formed to support the work), and people from all over the organization (not just the division we were trying to change) started calling us and asking us to tell them about what we were doing. People all over the place began giving us the benefit of the doubt. Suddenly, everything felt easy. Suddenly, instead of trudging up a mountain, it felt like I’d jumped into a river and was floating happily along. The final pilot project was so successful that most people across the division decided it was the right direction to go in, upper management noticed, and they reorganized the division to support what we were all doing.

When the formal re-org happened, at that point most of us in the group had achieved what we wanted in the first place—the division would do the work we cared about going forward. We then had a choice—stay and become resident experts and founders helping solve other people’s problems or move on to (1) let others have the amazing, self-organizing experience we had and (2) find the same “magic” again elsewhere that we’d had together for more than two years. In the months that followed, four of the five of us (those that had worked most closely) recognized that what mattered most to us had changed (helped by the others), and we moved on to other work, divisions, and organizations. One group member—who hadn’t had a chance to work on any of the pilot projects—stayed to keep learning with new groups.

As a group member, I recognize that our group was a founded group for at least the first year that we were together and as individuals we believed that our planning, our designs, and our hard work was the primary reason big things would happen. The group became a self-organizing group for us when we individually let go—at the points we each recognized that what mattered most to the success wasn’t actually what we were planning, designing, and building at all. Instead, what mattered most was that we were together, working across the division’s silos, learning, and happy. The simple fact that people from different parts of the division could work this way, happily and effectively, was actually what people were drawn to and responding to and trying out for themselves. The existence of the group mattered most. The work itself was secondary to what we’d been demonstrating as a group–that working this closely was possible, rewarding, effective, and fun. It wasn’t our plans at all!

As a group we were close enough that we came to see that our existence as a self-organizing group mattered most, and when we saw that, it got easier to let everything go. When people came to us and said “What should we do the morning of Day 2 of this customer meeting?” we began saying things such as “It doesn’t matter what we did. What matters is that you are there, together, and you are listening to each other. Listen. Learn. Decide what matters most in the moment for you and the customers you’re with. We don’t know what is needed in the moment–only you do. Focus on what matters most. Let everything else go.” When people ask me how the group started, as an individual I know how lucky I was to be part of it, how little I actually had to do with its success, and what amazing people I got to be with.

As a group member, for me the difference between a self-organizing group and a founded group is that the self-organizing group taught me how to let go—first in many, many little ways and then in big, life altering ways—and it made me want to work this way again more than it made me want to stay and be a founder. Also, the group radically altered my perspective of “self.” When I entered the self-organizing group, my “self” was primarily me as an individual. During out time together, my “self” became primarily the group and, some days, the division as a whole. The group helped me see that others were self-organizing around us and that the belief in ourselves and each other was alive and well in people all around us and all over the division. Compared to this, an individual need to have my name associated with the few details I’d personally planned in the division seemed almost meaningless to me. I began to imagine myself as something else–something outside the organization entirely. I wasn’t sure what this new self was, but I was compelled to leave and find out.

In hindsight, the group helped me recognize that, for me, anything less than working this way wasn’t effective enough and didn’t expect enough of me and the people I worked with. Through the group I was finally able to let go of my own ego (not my own needs, which actually matter more than ever, because today I see them as a reflection of greater needs within a greater whole). The group helped me recognize that I learn better and more rapidly as a learner within a group of learners than I do from individual experts. It’s also more challenging and more fun to work this way. It’s often scarier too, but group members always help me push through and embrace my fear. The self-organizing groups I’ve studied have reinforced and amplified my desire to work only as part of self-organizing groups. Individual expertise just isn’t as interesting to me as being a learner, learning with other learners, in groups we created for ourselves. I enter them differently today. Today self-organizing groups show up everywhere for me. When they don’t, I look for the limits of my individual plans and thoughts, I let them go, I wait and soon I’m watching in wonder as amazing people show up to work with me–people and groups so much better than I could have imagined on my own.

Today, I recognize myself primarily as a self-organizing group member. From my perspective, everyone is self-organizing (the people around the groups I study teach me that) and I can learn about self-organizing groups working with anyone. Ten years ago I was a shy, quiet employee who blamed my managers, colleagues, and organization when things went wrong. Today I’m a full-time learner (and researcher, blogger, author, and consultant) who runs her own business, works with people all over the world, and has nobody to blame but herself when things go wrong.

That’s the difference between self-organizing groups and founded groups that I experienced.