A friend recently said this to me: “One of my master’s classes this quarter briefly touched on the topic of self-organizing systems. We discussed how this might work in government employment, but I was skeptical. I argued that this sort of peer work was not feasible in government since government lacked the mechanisms for weeding out weak contributors or “free riders” in the system. Am I too cynical?”

I’ve heard similar questions elsewhere, so I thought I’d share my response. Here’s the response I sent him.

I’ve attached a graphic called “Forces in Group Formation” from the book Small Groups as Complex Systems (Arrow, McGrath, & Berdahl, 2000). It demonstrates distinctions in the kind of groups I seek out and study–self-organizing groups at work (spontaneous small groups created by people themselves, not externals to the group, in response to in-the-moment felt needs of group members and the people they care most about at work).

Forces in Group Formation

Forces in Group Formation

Other types of groups described in this graphic are:

  • Concocted groups (designed by externals to last into the future—typical work team in a large organization)
  • Founded groups (designed by internals to last into the future—typical small business start up)
  • Circumstantial groups (spontaneous groups that form in response primarily to external stimuli—bus riders become a group when their bus gets stuck in the snow).

Having studied self-organizing work groups (and peers and managers and administrators near them) for 5+ years now, from my perspective all of these types of groups exist within human organizations. I now see all humans and human groups as living, self-organizing systems. But I didn’t have to change my environment or organization to see self-organizing work groups in action: I had to change myself. I became part of one and stayed with it long enough that I started to see self-organization in other people and groups around me. So today, for me, the question isn’t “Can self-organizing work groups work in a particular environment?” As a self-organizing work group member, I can see that these groups are already there. The questions I’m interested in have become: “How do we recognize these groups when we see them? What are their impacts, benefits, and drawbacks? How do people foster them, sustain them, and end them at the appropriate time? And how do people overcome barriers to them at work?”

From my perspective, many of the assumptions we make—for example, that some people are free riders or that some organizations lack the mechanisms to self-organize—are based on what we’ve learned by primarily paying attention to the concocted and founded groups in our systems. So I wouldn’t call you cynical at all. That said, those aren’t the groups I participate in (or watch) any more, and what I now see on a daily basis (in organizations, groups, and people I meet) knocks my socks off (as a person, of course, not as a researcher–as a researcher I rarely allow my socks to be knocked off).

My research has demonstrated that most people in and many people near the self-organizing work groups I study can see these groups during their lifetimes. Others can’t. Others can see self-organizing work group members as individuals (individuals becoming organizational leaders, getting better at their jobs, moving and thinking faster than others, becoming more confident and spreading that confidence, and bringing together people and groups who couldn’t work together before), but they were unaware that the individual was also part of a self-organizing work group.

At whatever point you become interested enough in this subject to join us, please come to a meeting of the Seattle-area Self-Org Systems discussion group. We’re a cross-disciplinary group of learners, discussions are co-facilitated by community creator/sustainers, and anyone is welcome.

Until then, as an individual, I recommend that you start/join a self-organizing work group for yourself (which might be as simple as reflecting and recognizing that you’re already part of one). Being part of one of these groups appears to be the best way for an individual to see self-organizing work groups already at work in his or her environment.